Most of us have heard of the herb stevia, the new darling of the dieting world. But that’s not the only herb that provides a sweet flavor.
Aztec sweet herb (Lippia dulcis) is a ground cover herb native to Mexico and Central America. It sends out horizontal runners like mint, so be prepared to discover it growing in new places. The tiny white flowers form a circular cluster that stack one on top of another. The dark green leaves are about two inches long and toothed on the edges.
Aztec sweet herb is hardy in my Zone 7/8 garden. This is a plant that definitely likes the sun. When I first planted it, I chose a spot near the corner of my house where it would get shade in the afternoon. Gradually, over the space of three years, it worked its way around the corner of the house to fine the full sun it craved.
The chemicals in Aztec sweet herb leaves have been tested and found to be about 1500 times as sweet at ordinary sugar. That sounds great, until you discover that those chemical are accompanied by camphor. In fact, over half of the essential oil extracted from Aztec sweet herb is camphor. This presents a problem for those who wish to market this as a sweetener since camphor can be toxic to the nervous system.
With this herb containing high amounts of potentially poisonous chemicals, it made me wonder if it was ever used as a sweetener by the Aztecs. Historical records dating back to the early seventeenth century confirm that the Aztecs did indeed use this herb but not as a flavoring. The leaves were used in treatment of bronchitis, indigestion, and hypertension. In contemporary folk medicine of southern Mexico, it is also used as an aid to abortion.
The bottom line on Aztec sweet herb is that it is indeed sweet but that flavor can come with a cost. Grow it for the historical interest, but don’t add it to your coffee.