Stevia Plants For Sugar
If growing your own calorie-free, natural sweetener sounds too good to be true, it’s time to get to know stevia. Native to Paraguay and other tropical areas of the Americas, the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) produces leaves packed with super-sweet compounds that remain stable even after the leaves have been dried.
Stevia leaves have been used to sweeten teas and beverages throughout South America for centuries. More recently, diabetics and dieters alike have turned to stevia to reduce their sugar intake because, unlike honey, maple syrup, agave or molasses, this natural sweetener has zero calories and is not metabolized by the body.
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Stevia is especially well-suited to sweetening drinks, fruits, salad dressings, yogurt and most creamy desserts. Stevia can substitute for some, but not all, of the sugar used when baking, because it does not provide all of the multiple functions that sugar does.
Growing stevia is easy in well-drained beds or large containers, and the leaves can be dried for winter use like any other herb. Stevia grows best in warm conditions similar to those preferred by basil. Plants grown in warm climates will grow to 24 inches tall and wide. Where summers are cool, expect stevia plants to grow up to 16 inches. Grow three to five plants for a year’s supply of dried stevia leaves.
Where to Plant
With a height and spread of 1 to 2 feet, stevia plants grows well indoors in containers. It can also be set outside as long as weather is mild and temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Because it is a perennial herb, you can transition its container from inside to outside as weather permits. If you live in USDA zone 10 or above, you can grow it in the garden.
Native to subtropical Paraguay and other warm, dry places, stevia prefers full sun. Although it will also tolerate part shade, make sure the shade is not too deep. Because the amount of heat the plant receives drives how sweet it is, you want to encourage lots of hot afternoon sun. Avoid windy areas because this will reduce the sweetness in the leaves.
Stevia is equally unhappy in completely dry soil and soggy soil, so avoid both. Keep the soil evenly moist by checking frequently and watering lightly. Ensure good drainage so the roots are not sitting in water, which can quickly drown the plant — a few inches of gravel below the potting helps prevent standing water in the pot. Because the stevia plant’s feeder roots are near the surface of the soil, water frequently.
Stevia prefers well-drained, fertile soil, both in pots and in the garden. Make sure you choose a rich growing medium, like potting mix or soil amended with compost. Because stevia prefers soil that is both well-draining and consistently moist, water retention can sometimes be a problem. Apply a mulch to retain moisture.
If you plan to harvest your entire stevia crop each year, first take cuttings from your plants to start next year’s crop. Trim off stems, then dip them in a rooting hormone before allowing them to grow for two to three weeks in a rooting medium. Transplant them into potting soil in a pot with good drainage and care for them in the same way as a larger plant.
Stevia may attract aphids, spider mites and mealybugs, so check it frequently, especially even under the leaves and around the soil. If you find pests, spray with a mild insecticide. If you plan to consume the stevia leaves, make sure you use an organic, nontoxic spray labeled for food plants. To make the plant bushier and produce more leaves, pinch the tips of the stems every two to three weeks.