By E. VinjeTweet
Nature’s sweet secret. Used widely in South America and the orient, herb gardeners began growing stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) when the safety of artificial sweeteners came into question. Native to Paraguay, Stevia extracts are 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. Extremely low in calories and all natural. The FDA has approved its use as a dietary supplement. Plants grow 3-4 feet tall. Perennial, sometimes grown as an annual.
Stevia grows best in well drained rich soil and afternoon shade, especially in hot climates. Select a site that is protected from cool winds and harsh weather. This is a sub-tropical plant that should be protected, especially when nighttime temperatures fall below 50 degrees F. Prior to planting, dig in a balanced organic fertilizer or well-composted animal manure. Does well in containers and can be grown year round if given proper care.
How to Plant:
Sow seeds indoors 6-8-weeks before last frost. When plants are large enough to handle transplant into 3 inch pots and keep indoors until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. Can then be planted 8 inches apart in rows. Mulching with compost will help keep roots cool, deter weeds and prevent moisture loss. Do not over water and provide fertilizers that are rich in phosphoric acid or potash content. Avoid high nitrogen chemical fertilizers, as they produce large leaves with little flavor.
Cool temperatures and short days tend to intensify the sweet flavor of stevia. As a result, plants should be harvested late into the fall, providing they can be protected from the cold. Most culinary herbs are best picked early in the morning just as the dew evaporates. To dry, tie the cuttings in small bunches and hang upside down in a well-ventilated, dark room. When dried, remove the leaves from the stems and store whole. Crush or grind just before use.
Insects and Disease:
Stevia is not bothered by many insect pest or diseases. In fact, plants have been found to have insect-repelling qualities.
Seed Saving Instructions: