Stevia plant is a green herbal plant with a long history of uses dating back to the early 1500s. It was a discovery by Pedro Jaime Esteve, a Spanish physician and botanist. The people of South America, Brazil and Paraguay have used this plant they called “sweet herb” to sweeten teas and medicines since its discovery. The uses were multiplied many times over when two chemists from France isolated the glycosides that are responsible for stevia’s sweetening abilities in 1931. Through testing and trials, it became a popular food additive.
Today, we know them as brand names of PureVia, Truvia, and Rebiana as a non-nutritive and non-caloric sweetener. It is also a much safer alternative to the saccharine and cyclamates.
Many people have attempted to grow stevia in a window garden or indoor pot, but in warmer climates it is possible to plant as much as you like outdoors. With proper care, your stevia plant can thrive and grow well.
Uses of Stevia
Extracts from the stevia plant are readily found in grocery stores as well as nature stores in the form of liquid drops, finely granulated powder, and even cubes resembling sugar cubes. Depending on the preparation, we can use these extracts to sweeten drinks non-artificially, sprinkle on cereal and sweeten baked goods without the calories of sugar. We can find them in hundreds of low calorie foods commercially and has become the sweetener of choice for those watching caloric intake.
Climate and Soil Types
According to available USDA information, stevia plant got a rating for growth in Plant Hardiness Zones 8 to 11, which includes most of the western coastal states, southern Nevada and southern Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and southern Texas, the southern coastal states and most of Florida.
For your stevia plant to thrive, you need to wait until the frost has stopped for the season, as their delicate leaves will not withstand the cold. The soil should be rich, loamy and well nourished using compost. Choose a location with good drainage so the tender foods don’t sit in water for too long. Moist soil is enough for the stevia plant.
In warmer climates where there is no danger of frost over the winter, we can leave some plants outdoors and may grow year round. You can keep your plants trimmed down or allow them to grow into bushes from which you can take cuttings to grow more plants. Although the stevia plant prefers full sun, in very hot climates it does well with some afternoon shade.
Starts vs. Seeds
You would need two green thumbs and maybe a green toe as well in order to get a successful stevia crop by planting seeds. They are just too delicate and have a high die-off rate. It is a good recommendation that you plant cuttings instead. If you take cuttings from an existing plant, the cuttings must be temporarily planted in a good rooting medium (soil from the garden spot where you intend to transplant them is too dense) and allowed to grow a root system before they will survive outdoors on their own. Use a commercial rooting hormone or make a slurry in your blender of willow tree tips and mix that into the soil.
We should tend and water them just slightly every day for two to three weeks to form a new root system. Once you reach this point, you can pot them in small 4-inch containers (using your garden soil) and place in direct light over the winter to stabilize and mature enough to transplant into your garden next spring.
Now if all of this sounds like too much work or you don’t want to wait, pop into your local nursery and buy already established starts. Be fairly warned though: stevia plant only do well for about three growing seasons and then you will need to replace them with fresh cuttings, so you might as well get some going for next year. Whether you purchase the starts or take cuttings from another plant, be sure to ask about the stevioside content. The higher the content, the sweeter the plant will be.
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Planting the Starts
Once you have found a good location; prepared a loamy, nutrient-rich soil; and have a supply of quality, rooted starts; you can go ahead and start planting. Dig your holes a few inches across and gently remove the plant with its soil from the pot, taking care not to disturb the root system and set them into the hole.
Leaving them in the soil from the pot allows the roots to strengthen without the difficulty of breaking through the garden soil, which should be level with top of the soil from the pot. Gently press the surrounding soil in around it so it is firm. Plant them around 18 inches to 20 inches apart and if planting more than one row, leave 20 inches between the rows.
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Watering and Maintenance
Like any plant, stevia needs water to thrive and grow; however, allowing them to sit in standing water is a big no-no for their delicate root systems. Frequent, light watering is ideal for these delicate plants, especially in hot weather. Again, proper drainage is essential.
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Your stevia plant will grow quickly, and once they reach 8 inches, they will begin to get leggy and sparse if you don’t keep them trimmed. Prune away any strays and use the leaves you have cut off. These would also be excellent cuttings to root for use next spring, especially if you live in an area where your stevia plant will not over-winter outdoors. Allowing the stevia plant to grow much bigger puts them into the flowering stage. Once they flower, they quickly lose any sweetness they might have had as all of the plant’s energy goes into the flower. Remove any buds that may appear on smaller stevia plant as well.
Outdoor gardeners are well aware of the damage that caterpillars, aphids, and grasshoppers can do to otherwise healthy and thriving garden plants. This is where you gain a real advantage in planting stevia. These non-toxic herbal plants appear to have natural pest-repellant qualities. It may be the smell or the taste of them, but bugs appear to be less-than-interested in the stevia plant, so pest control should be minimal.
After a long and busy summer of tending your garden and babying your stevia plant, how do you know when they are ready for harvesting? Well, even though it was previously mentioned that you should wait until after a frost to plant them in the first place, your leaves will increase in sweetness by allowing them to go through a night or two of light frost at this stage.
Make sure to cover them with a drop cloth or sheet to prevent the actual frost from setting on your plant. It is the cold itself that sets the sweetness, rather like the frost setting the juice in apples on the tree. Cool fall weather allows them to continue growing and makes the sweetness intensify, so allow plants to stay as long as weather allows, covering as needed.
The first step to harvesting is to cut away the stems from the main stalk of the plant, making sure to leave at least 4 inches of stem at the base for regrowth next year. If you didn’t take cutting for rooting from pruning them, now is a good chance to grab a few. Once you have trimmed plants back to the main stalk, rinse the harvested stems and then strip them of their leaves.
Preparing and Using Your Stevia Plant
Place all of the newly harvested leaves in a single layer on screens or netting. They can dry in a garage or basement, but placing them in the sun from sunup to sundown on one sunny day will do the job. Leaving the leaves in the sun longer than 12 hours after picking will reduce the sweetening effect. Make sure they have good air circulation to prevent spoilage.
Once thoroughly dried, leaves can be stored in canning jars in a cool dark place until ready for use. Grinding them into a fine powder in a coffee grinder or spice grinder releases the most potency. You can also steep ¼ cup of the leaves in a cup of warm water to make a liquid sweetener. This needs to be stored in the refrigerator and used within a few days.
The benefits of stevia have been a huge boost to diabetics who would like to enjoy something sweet once in a while, as well as dieters who need to watch their calories. Those who simply don’t feel that refined sugars are good for their bodies also enjoy using stevia to sweetened an occasional drink or dessert.
Once an exotic plant reserved for those who lived where it was grown, stevia is now widely available for purchase. Many people have taken to growing a plant or two indoors, but to those with a green thumb, who want to learn how to plant stevia outdoors and take on the challenge, the rewards are sweet indeed.
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