You need not be a South American planter to be a successful stevia grower. While the herb’s native locale may make it appear somewhat exotic, it has proved to be quite adaptable and capable of being cultivated in climate zones as diverse as Florida and southern Canada.
True, home-grown stevia may lack the potency of refined white stevia extract; whole stevioside content generally ranges from 81 to 91 percent, as compared to a leaf level of approximately 12 percent. But it can provide you with a quantity of freshly harvested stevia ‘tea leaves’ to augment your supply of commercial stevia sweeteners.
Organic gardeners in particular should find stevia an ideal addition to their yield. Though nontoxic, stevia plants have been found to have insect-repelling tendencies. Their very sweetness, in fact, may be a kind of natural defense mechanism against aphids and other bugs that find it not to their taste. Perhaps that’s why crop-devouring grasshoppers have been reported to bypass stevia under cultivation.
Then, too, raising stevia yourself, whether in your back yard or on your balcony, is another positive way you can personally (and quite legally) protest the wrongheaded government policies that have for so long deprived the American people of its benefits — a kind of contemporary Victory Garden.
To Start your Stevia Patch
It would be difficult, at best, to start a stevia patch from scratch — that is, by planting seeds. Even if you could get them to germinate, results might well prove disappointing, since stevioside levels can vary greatly in plants grown from seed.
The recommended method is rather to buy garden-ready ‘starter’ plants, which given stevia’s ‘growing’ popularity, may well be obtainable from a nursery or herbalist in your area — provided you’re willing to scout around a bit. If you’re not, or are unsuccessful in locating any, there are at least three growers of high-quality stevia who will ship you as many baby plants as you’d like.
Keep in mind that not all stevia plants are created equal in terms of stevioside content, and, hence, sweetness. It’s therefore a good idea to try to determine if the plants you’re buying have been grown from cuttings whose source was high in stevioside.
Because tender young stevia plants are especially sensitive to low temperatures, it’s important that you wait until the danger of frost is past and soil temperatures are well into the 50s and 60s before transplanting them into your garden.
Once you begin, it’s best to plant your stevia in rows 20 to 24 inches apart, leaving about 18 inches between plants. Your plants should grow to a height of about 30 inches and a width of 18 to 24 inches.
Gathering Stevia Leaves
Harvesting should be done as late as possible, since cool autumn temperatures and shorter days tend to intensify the sweetness of the plants as they evolve into a reproductive state. While exposure to frost is still to be avoided, covering the plants during an early frost can give you the benefit of another few weeks’ growth and more sweetness.
When the time does come to harvest your stevia, the easiest technique is to cut the branches off with pruning shears before stripping the leaves. As an extra bonus, you might also want to clip off the very tips of the stems and add them to your harvest, as they are apt to contain as much stevioside as do the leaves.
If you live in a relatively frost-free climate, your plants may well be able to survive the winter outside, provided you do not cut the branches too short (leaving about 4 inches of stem at the base during pruning). In that case, your most successful harvest will probably come in the second year. Three-year-old plants will not be as productive and, ideally, should be replaced with new cuttings.
In harsher climates, however, it might be a good idea to take cuttings that will form the basis for the next year’s crop. Cuttings need to be rooted before planting, using either commercial rooting hormones or a natural base made from willow tree tips, pulverized onto a slurry in your blender. After dipping the cuttings in such a preparation, they should be planted in a rooting medium for two to three weeks, giving the new root system a chance to form. They should then be potted — preferably in 4.5-inch pots — and placed in the sunniest and least drafty part of your home until the following spring.
Harvesting Sweet Stevia
Once all your leaves have been harvested you will need to dry them. This can be accomplished on a screen or net. (For a larger application, an alfalfa or grain drier can be used, but about the only way an average gardener might gain access to such a device is to borrow it from a friendly neighborhood farmer). The drying process is not one that requires excessive heat; more important is good air circulation. On a moderately warm fall day, your stevia crop can be quick dried in the full sun in about 12 hours. (Drying times longer than that will lower the stevioside content of the final product.) A home dehydrator can also be used, although sun drying is the preferred method.
Crushing the dried leaves is the final step in releasing stevia’s sweetening power. This can be done either by hand or, for greater effect, in a coffee grinder or in a special blender for herbs. You can also make your own liquid stevia extract by adding a cup of warm water to 1/4 cup of fresh, finely-crushed stevia leaves. This mixture should set for 24 hours and then be refrigerated.
Growing Stevia Hydroponically/Aeroponically
Just because you live within the confines of an apartment or condominium doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the benefits of stevia farming. This versatile plant can be grown either in pots on your balcony or any sunny spot, or else in a Aeroponic Tower systems. Stevia plants also do quite well in “container gardens.” A. A properly fertilized hydroponic unit or container garden can provide you with as much stevia as an outdoor garden, if not more.
Health Benefits Of Stevia
The health benefits of stevia include diabetes management, weight loss, skin care, and much more. Let us explore some of its health benefits in detail.
The most widely praised aspect of stevia for human health concerns is its ability to regulate blood sugar levels in the body. This is an ideal replacement for normal sugar for diabetics or people on carbohydrate-controlled diets because they can eat sweet foods without having to worry about diabetic complications.
Opposed to sucrose, which is what normal table sugar consists of, stevia sweetens food in a similar way as sugar, but it contains stevioside, which is a non-carbohydrate glycoside compound. As explained above, when stevioside breaks down, the glucose-containing particles are absorbed by the bacteria in the colon, rather than being absorbed into the bloodstream and affecting glucose levels in the body.
Stevia is very low in calories and is anywhere from 40-300x sweeter than sugar, depending on the prevalence of certain extracts in the species variety. This means that people can eat foods like cakes, cookies, and candies made with stevia without worrying about gaining plenty of calories from sugars, so they won’t hurt their chances of successfully losing weight. This can also help in controlling excess sugar content in children’s diet.
As mentioned, stevioside is a type of glycoside, but there are other glycosides in stevia that can actually relax the blood vessels, increase urination, and facilitate the elimination of sodium from the body. This means that less stress is put on the cardiovascular system and there can be a drop in blood pressure, which protects heart health and prevents certain conditions such as atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes.
The rich source of antioxidant compounds found in stevia makes it an ideal dietary supplement for various cancer prevention including pancreatic cancer. Quercetin, kaempferol, and the other glycoside compounds in stevia help to eliminate free radicals in the body, thereby preventing them from mutating healthy cells into cancer cells. Antioxidants also help to prevent premature aging, cognitive malfunction, and various other conditions like heart disease.
Lowers Cholesterol Levels
Studies show that consumption of stevia leads to significant reduction in bad cholesterol, triglyceride, and LDL levels. And, increased levels of HDL, which is healthy cholesterol and is essential for good lipid profile.
Stevia has been found to reduce bacterial formation in the mouth, making it a popular additive for toothpastes and mouthwashes. It also prevents cavities and gingivitis, which sucrose certainly doesn’t do!
Stevia is useful against skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis. Topical application inhibits the spread of bacteria and acts as a steroid in these situations, making it a popular option for many people who can’t get relief from these conditions.
Stevia, unlike sugar, aids in increasing bone mineral density and treat osteoporosis. A study on animals shows its importance in increased calcium metabolism. Researchers are trying to find out different ways it could be used for human health.
Along with all the health benefits mentioned above stevia is also known to possess anti-diarrheal, anti-hyperglycemic, antihypertensive, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal, and immune-modulatory actions.
How To Use And Store Stevia?
You can use stevia leaves, leaf powder or liquid form directly as a sugar substitute in various foods:
- Beverages – coffee, and tea
- Dairy products – yogurt, and ice-cream
- Packed foods – pickles, sauces, soft drinks, and candies
- Baked products – bread, cakes, and deserts
You could also use it in cooking various dishes at home. However, it is important to check the amount before adding it as a substitute for sugar because it is many times sweeter than sugar.
Note: Raw stevia has a long shelf life when stored in a cool and dry place. While exposure to humidity may lead to caking it would still be safe for consumption.