Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a sugar-free, natural sweetener? That’s where stevia comes in. It is easy to grow, has no serious side effects, and provides that wonderful sweetness we crave.
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni) is a tender perennial herb that grows well in Zone 8 and higher. It forms a dense cluster of stout branches to about two feet high and about as wide. In late summer stevia sports clusters of tiny white flowers at the tip. The medium green leaves are slightly scalloped. Their thick texture is reminiscent of succulents.
Experts say stevia prefers sandy loam but I’ve found it will grow reliably in clay soils as well. This herb is happy in full sun with moderate water and requires virtually no maintenance during the growing season. In late fall clip the stems down to the ground and give the base a light mulch. In regions with high humidity, watch for powdery mildew. Clip off any infected stems and move the plant to an area more exposed to sun and breezes. If your garden has poor drainage or frequent rains, plant stevia in a raised bed or container to avoid root rot.
The sweet leaves of stevia can be harvested as soon as the branches reach about a foot high. If you harvest regularly, the plant will become bushy giving you more overall leaf production. The leaves can be used fresh or dried for later use. Tie the branches together and hang them upside down in a warm, dry location. Or you can spread the stems in a single layer on a screen. Once the leaves are dry and crackly, remove them by running you finger tips down the stems from top to bottom. Store the whole leaves in an airtight container for later use.
The raw leaves of stevia are intensely sweet, roughly ten times sweeter than sugar. About half a teaspoon of dried chopped stevia leaf is equivalent to 8 ounces of sugar. The easiest way to use this herb is to sweeten beverages. Just swish a fresh stem of stevia in iced tea and you’ll see what I mean. It is still used this way in Paraguay. Street vendors that sell fruit juice or other drinks will offer to sweeten it with stevia leaves. In hot tea the leaves can be added with tea or herb leaves.