The stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana) is native to the Southwestern U.S., Central and South Americas, and is related to sunflowers. Its usage originated in South America where it has been used as a sweetener for centuries. The Guarani natives of Paraguay call it “ka’a he’e”, or "sweet herb".
Stevia is non-caloric and super sweet. It can be used either fresh or dried, with no loss of sweetness in the drying process. The leaves are said to about 30 - 40 times as sweet as sugar (commercial extracts of it can be as much as 300 times as sweet as sugar), although individual plants are said to very greatly in their sweetness. In the garden we try it for sweetness by plucking and eating a leaf.
According to the seed company, Johnny's Selected Seeds, stevia is a plaque retardant and tooth decay inhibitor. It also repels insects as its sweetness causes aphids, grasshoppers and other pests to avoid it. Be aware though, there are other invaders that may inhibit your crop. A friend of ours stopped growing stevia because her children would pick and eat all the young leaves, leaving nothing left to harvest. Garden pests come in all shapes and sizes.
Stevia has been an experimental crop for us. We were able to start a few plants from seed in the garden. Stevia is known for its iffy germination, so if you can find plants you might be better off. Last fall I potted up one of the garden plants and brought it indoors for the winter- it is perennial to zone 9 but can be potted up and brought indoors in cooler climates. We used it sparingly and it kept on growing. This spring the pot was set outside and has been thriving all summer. The long stems twined themselves around our porch rail. I recently trimmed it back and dried the leaves. Stevia doesn't survive frost, although cool weather tends to enhance its sweetness.
Stevia, being a sweetener, has many uses. I simply crumble some dried leaves into teas, sauces and any recipes calling for a little sweetness. Add stevia to tomato sauce to counter the acidity of the tomatoes. Add it to a cup of tea, use it to sweeten dressings and sauces. In larger quantities (you will have to experiment to find the desired amounts) it can be used in cookies, breads, and other baked goods.
Why isn't this amazing herb better known? The USDA, in conjunction with the sugar industry and makers of sugar alternatives saccharine and aspertame, has declared that stevia can only be legally sold in the U.S. as a "dietary supplement". It is perfectly legal, though, to grow stevia yourself. Although available in health food stores, growing stevia yourself is a great way to enjoy this alternative to sugar and other processed sweeteners.
Drop us a line or two in the comments here and let us know your experiences with it if you have tried it. -G.H.