Stevia (stevia rebaudiana) is a new world herb that you might have only recently heard of. Stevia leaves – while having zero calories – are claimed to be 30 times sweeter than sugar, and in fact one of the common names is “candy leaf” – the extract is supposedly 300 times sweeter than sugar! Stevia is also reputed to have several health benefits including the prevention of tooth decay and diabetes. I don’t know about that, but I would guess that using less sugar probably would have those effects.
Is the idea of growing your own natural organic zero calorie sweetener intriguing to you?
I’m growing stevia for the first time this year from Burpee brand seeds that I bought at a local home improvement center. I had heard that stevia was very hard to start from seeds, but I got about 50% germination rate by using bottom heat, keeping them very warm, continuously damp, and supplying 17 hours / day of florescent light. After 3 weeks I have 6 healthy looking (if a bit slow growing) plants from the dozen or so seeds that came in the pack. Since I have so few I’m being extra careful with them right now, and making sure that they stay above 50 degrees at all times.
I haven’t really found very much culture information about stevia yet other than that they don’t tolerate cold temperatures, and are a bit hard to start from seed, but easy to start from cuttings, and have few if any insect pests. I also heard from a fellow in Australia that they grow almost as weeds there because they self seed. He said that among other uses they put the raw leaves in salads. I have in mind to try it in some herbal tea mixes, and perhaps brewing a tea with it and using it as a condiment. I also hope to save my own seeds and perhaps over winter a plant or two next year. Maybe I’ll sell a few starts at the farmers market if all goes well.
Until very recently it was not legal to even refer to stevia as a sweetener in the United States despite it’s very long record of benign use in other countries around the world. Stevia could only be marketed as a dietary supplement in the U.S. – But, now that the sweetener industry is ready to roll out their own stevia products that law has been changed. Guess who lobbied the FDA to keep it illegal as a sweetener all those years?
Anyway, you might want to consider trying to grow stevia in your garden this year – if you do, let me know how it goes.
More information about Stevia