Stevia is all the rage right now. Just walk down any grocery store baking aisle and you will likely find several sweeteners that have stevia in them. They go by names like Truvia, Stevia in the Raw, Sweet Leaf, Nustevia and many other names. I’ve always wondered about the processing of these sweeteners because, well, stevia is a green plant and what’s in these boxes and bags is white powder.
There are also liquid stevia products on that market that you can get for about $5 an ounce…ouch!
In case you don’t know what stevia is, let me explain. Stevia is a plant from Paraguay that happens to have very sweet tasting leaves and zero calories. Can you see why people would want to use it? The problem is that most of the commercially grown stevia is now grown in China, and during processing it is stripped of many of the plant’s healthful properties. (http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/stevia-plant-zm0z13fmzkin.aspx#axzz2w5o5Etck)
So what’s a person to do? Grow your own.
Stevia can grow in most gardening zones. In zones 7 and below it can be grown as an annual, and in zones 8 and above as a perennial. Stevia seeds are very small and somewhat temperamental in germinating. However, keeping your pot covered with plastic and a florescent light on until it does germinate (about 7-14 days) will help.
However, most garden centers carry stevia transplants or they can be ordered online. That may be a better way start.
Stevia likes well drained soil, but other than that, it’s not too picky. Although it naturally grows in soil of about 4-5pH, it will tolerate soil up to a 9pH. Ideally it likes subtropical temperatures between 70 and 105F, with an average temperature of 75F. But it will grow in warmer climates with shade (zones 8 and above) and in colder climates (7 and below) with some winter protection.
Stevia likes to be watered regularly but doesn’t like to be water logged. The roots will rot.
When the plant grows to about 6-8″ you can start pinching off the tips and harvesting some leaves to encourage the plant to become bushy. Continue harvesting all summer or wait until early fall to have a larger one time harvest.
To overwinter, leave about 6″ of the plant intact or take a cutting and re-root. Put in a pot and bring inside. Put near a window or put a florescent light on it.
To dry the leaves, you can leave them on the stem and hang them in bunches or use an electric dehydrator. When they are completely dry, strip the leaves off the stem and crush into a powder.
To make an extract, put chopped leaves (only leaves) into a jar and pour vodka over them. Store in a cool dark place for 2 days – like a pantry. Shake several times a day. After 2 days, strain out the leaves. Put extract in a pot and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Pour extract into an opaque bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
So, there you have it. A way to get all the benefits of using stevia without wondering what in the world is done to it during processing OR blowing your grocery budget to buy liquid stevia.