Sweet, Sweet Stevia

stevia

Stevia, Stevia rebaudiana, is a tropical herb renowned for its sweet leaves. In recent years, it has been increasingly popular as a sugar substitute. It does not contain any carbohydrates and is great for diabetics. Although processed forms of stevia are now available in most major supermarkets, stevia is easy to grow, either in your herb garden or as a house plant.

Growing & harvesting     Cooking     Fresh or processed?     Is stevia safe?

Growing & Harvesting Stevia

Stevia is a very easy herb to grow. It is an annual and, although you can plant seeds, buying a young plant will give you weeks - if not months - of extra time to harvest the leaves. Stevia is a tropical plant and HATES cold weather, so wait until nights are above 50 degrees and the soil is warm to the touch before you plant it.

Stevia likes well drained soil and plenty of sun. We’ve grown it in part shade and it performed reasonably well, but it is more productive with more light. It grows about a foot tall and can be somewhat floppy, so give it plenty of room. Fertilize with compost or compost tea a couple of times during the growing season. Keep the weeds at bay, water if needed, don’t run over it with the lawn mower and you should be all set.

You can also grow stevia in containers. It is a fairly large plant, so either plant it by itself or combine it with other robust plants in a large container like a whiskey barrel. If you grow it alone, a ten inch diameter pot would be ideal, although we have wintered stevia in pots as small as 6 inches.

Speaking of wintering stevia, that’s not hard, either. Place it in a window that gets full sun, preferably in a cool room, water it when the surface dries out and fertilize it when you remember. Keep an eye on it and make sure it stays free of aphids, whiteflies and other house plant pests. We’ve found it actually grows a little during the winter, so you can snip the occasional leaf without harming the plant.

Harvest stevia when plants reach 10 to 12 inches tall by cutting the top half of the stalks; here in Maine we can cut stevia 3 or 4 times during the summer. If you live where the growing season is longer, you may get additional cuttings. You can use stevia fresh or you can dry it. Stevia dries well - follow our general directions for
drying herbs.

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Cooking with Stevia

So you’ve grown and harvested a summer’s worth of stevia -
now how do you use it?

  • It is great in beverages. Making sun tea? Toss a stem or two or three into the jar. In the winter, put a pinch of dried stevia into a tea ball and fill the ball with dried mint. YUM!
  • Sweeten fruit with stevia. We stew it with rhubarb very successfully (1-2 tablespoons, chopped to each cup of fruit)
  • Use it in granola in place of honey or maple syrup.
  • Try it in apple pie.
  • Remember that dried stevia is a lot more concentrated than fresh stevia, so you’ll need less of the dried form.

What you can’t do with stevia: Lots of baked goods - cakes, cookies and the like - count on sugar to help them brown and rise. (Yes, we’re sure. A really good chef told us.) If you substitute stevia for the sugar in these recipes, it likely won’t work.

And what about jam? We don’t know. We did find a recipe or two on the internet, but we’re skeptical. The relationship between sugar and pectin is why jellies gel, so we’re not sure the jam would thicken.

One last thing: Many of the recipes on the internet call for processed stevia. If you are using your own dried stevia, results may differ.

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Fresh From My Garden or Processed From the Store?

Once upon a time, stevia was only available at natural food stores. However, it is appearing in processed form in more and more mainstream grocery stores. Why bother to grow stevia when you can buy it easily at the store? That’s your decision to make! However, here are our thoughts on the subject:

  • Processed stevia is expensive! Wouldn’t you rather use that money to buy more plants?
  • Processed stevia is, well, processed. We’re trying to use unprocessed or less-processed foods in our diets these days. After all, you start out with green leaves and end up with white powder. How did the manufacturers do that?
  • As with many food products, growing and consuming stevia at home greatly reduces your carbon footprint.
  • Read the labels! While stevia does not contain any carbohydrates, many of the processed forms contain "fillers" that DO have carbs - and this is very important for folks like diabetics who want to monitor and/or restrict carbohydrate intake.

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Is Stevia Safe?

Stevia is banned in some countries and was banned in the United States at one time, simply because the Food and Drug Administration wanted to make sure it was safe. According to the American Diabetes Association, "Stevia (sometimes called Rebaudioside A or rebiana) is now generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA as a food additive and table top sweetener. When something is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, it means that experts have agreed that it is safe for use by the public in appropriate amounts."

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Hummingbird Farm
Brian and Cindy Tibbetts
202 Bean Street  Turner, Maine 04282
(207) 224-8220   hummingbird@megalink.net
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