Growing stevia is a great way to have a ready supply of this sweet-tasting herb.
Background Information About Stevia
Stevia hails from South America, and is actually among a group of over 200 plants related to the sunflower. Stevia also goes by the names sweet leaf, sweetleaf, sugar leaf and sugar bush. It's known for its sweet taste. Some people find the taste a bit unusual and need to adjust to it; it's said to have an aftertaste similar to licorice. A little stevia goes a long way towards sweetening hot beverages such as tea or coffee, and can also be used as a sweetening agent in cooked foods.
Aside from its sweet taste, stevia has several important properties. The natives of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay used stevia to sweeten various herbal teas. It does not raise blood glucose levels in diabetics and may even help diabetics manage blood glucose levels more efficiently. Another historical medicinal use of stevia has been to lower blood pressure. Modern research focuses on using stevia as a sugar alternative, since it is about 30 times sweeter than sugar but with zero calories.
Some early research indicated that high levels of stevia, such as those found in products containing a manufactured stevia extract, caused mutations in liver cells. Since those early studies have come out, however, numerous studies have tried to get the same results and failed. The preponderance of evidence shows that stevia, when used responsibly, is fairly safe for most people.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no evidence that stevia or an other approved artificial sweetener causes cancer. In fact, these sweeteners may actually have positive effects in patients with type 2 diabetes. Much like cinnamon, stevia may be a useful additive to foods, helping diabetics control their blood glucose levels more effectively.
Growing Requirements for Stevia
Not Particularly Frost Hardy
Most people get into growing stevia at home to create a ready source of this sweet herb. Stevia can be grown outside after all danger of frost is past, but it usually does not survive the winters in gardening zones 8 or lower. Because it comes from a tropical climate, stevia needs tropical conditions, and that means a temperature that does not stay below freezing. Healthy stevia plants growing in the garden can take a mild frost, but should be dug up and grown indoors for best results. Growing stevia indoors is also possible.
- Outside: Stevia plants need full sunlight, defined as six or more hours per day, in order to thrive. Outside, choose a sunny, bright spot in the garden.
- Inside: Inside the house, use grow lights or place the plants on a south-facing windowsill.
Stevia also needs rich, loamy soil and a good water supply to grow.
Growing Seeds Versus Plants
Growing stevia is easier from plant cuttings than seeds. Stevia seeds are tiny and difficult to germinate. If you can only find stevia seeds, you may want to plant more than you think is necessary. Since only a handful will germinate, you should have enough plants.
Sources for Stevia Seeds and Plants
Growing stevia at home from seeds or plants can be a great way to obtain the quantities you need. The following online and catalog companies sell stevia seeds or plants:
- The Growers Exchange sells stevia plants by mail order.
- Burpee Seed sells stevia seeds.
- Park Seed also sells stevia seed.
- The following herb farms sell stevia plants by phone order:
- The Herbal Advantage - 800-753-9929
- Well Sweep Herb Farm, New Jersey - 908-852-5390
- Richter's Herbs, Canada - 905-640-6677
Try Growing Your Own Stevia
Stevia isn't the easiest plant to grow, but it may be well worth the effort to produce your own healthy sweetener, especially if you or a family member has diabetes. Even if your growing efforts yield just a little useable stevia, you can still try it and see if you like it. If you do, try to figure out what worked best, and see if you can increase your crop with the next try.