In an effort to eat healthier and be more self reliant, my family is growing a few stevia plants this year. You may know stevia from the grocery store as a white, processed powder; however preserving the leaf from your own plants will also provide you with many cups of green sweet goodness. You can grow stevia and preserve it yourself for a fraction of the price of the commercially processed product.
Author Charles Dowling, in his recent article in Permaculture Magazine, shares that he was able to harvest 8.4 ounces of dried stevia leaf from three stevia plants. Since stevia leaf is up to 15 times sweeter than sugar, his harvest is the equivalent of 53 pounds of sugar.
The History Of Stevia
In South American countries, this popular herb has been used for thousands of years as a sweetener. The primary ingredient comes from two chemicals, glycosides stevioside and rebaudioside A, that are 40 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose depending on where the plant is grown. (Source: New American Herbal by Stephen Orr).
Stevia and its extracts have no calories, few carbohydrates, and a glycemic index of zero. It can have a bitter aftertaste so you should introduce it to your palate in small doses until you are used to it. Use the conversion chart at the end of this post and substitute half of the sugar in a recipe with stevia to help your taste buds adjust.
How To Grow Stevia
Type: Tender perennial--usually grown as an annual. To overwinter in zone 7 and below: after harvesting, bring the plant inside the house and water weekly. You can also use a protected garage or greenhouse. Stevia will not survive an extended frost.
Height: 20-30 inches, however, with the right conditions your plant may reach 48-60 inches.
Growing: From seed or transplant. Plant Stevia seed in late winter. Keep it in a sunny windowsill until all danger of frost has passed. Stevia prefers a medium rich garden soil with compost and full sun. Stevia likes heat, humidity and has average water requirements. It does not like to have “wet feet” so if growing in a container make sure there is plenty of drainage.
Fertilizer requirements: Stevia plants respond well to organic fertilizers and compost since they release nitrogen slowly. Apply once a year, at the start of spring if the plant is in the ground. If it’s in a plant pot, add 20-30% of peat by volume to the plant pot and fertilize twice a season.
Pests: No serious pest problems for outdoor plants. According to The University of Kentucky Extension office in their publication Stevia, aphids and white flies can become a serious problem on stevia in greenhouses.
How To Harvest Stevia
You can begin harvesting Stevia leaves in July. To continue your harvest, just pinch out early blooms. The main stevia crop is harvested when plants are mature and blooms have just begun to form over the entire plant, generally in late summer.
Sweetness is intensified by cooler temperatures and short days; however, sugar levels decline after flowering. It’s a tradeoff you will have to decide on. I tend to harvest mine before cooler temperatures set in.
How To Preserve Stevia Leaf
Harvested plants are dried with low heat (95-120°F) and good air circulation for 24 to 48 hours. A dehydrator could be used for leaf drying, or if you have a lot of stems, plants can be dried in the sun and then threshed to separate the sweet leaves from the bitter stems.
Once dried, whole stevia leaves can be stored for 12 months in air-tight containers or plastic bags. To extend their shelf life, be careful of humidity.
Once the leaves are dry you can crumble them into a fine powder. Use a mesh screen or grind them in a food processor or coffee grinder. Store the powder in an air-tight container.
How To Make Liquid Extract
Perhaps the easiest way to preserve your stevia leaves is to make an extract. You only need a few ingredients, and a few days to accomplish it. A few drops of stevia extract are as sweet as a teaspoon of sugar.
You will need:
- 1 glass jar with a tight fitting lid
- Dried stevia leaves. They can be crumbled, chopped or powdered
- Vodka or Rum
Using a ratio of 2 parts stevia to 3 parts liquid, place one cup of stevia in the jar and cover it with 1.5 cups of alcohol. Shake the mixture well and let it sit for no more than 36 hours (it will become bitter if you steep it longer than 36 hours). Strain through muslin or a coffee filter and pour the tincture into a dark colored bottle. It will keep indefinitely.
To remove the alcohol: once the 36 hours are up simmer the mixture on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring regularly. Be careful not to boil. When it cools, strain and bottle as above. This mixture should be kept in the refrigerator, where it will store for six months.
How To Make Stevia Syrup
Your dry stevia leaves can be used to make a healthy syrup for sweetening beverages, sauces, or even other syrups. A teaspoon of stevia syrup is as sweet as a cup of sugar.
Take 2 cups of warm water and add it to half a cup of dried stevia leaves. Put the mixture in a glass jar and let it steep for 24 hours. Strain the leaves from the mixture.
Cook the strained mixture on low heat, reducing it to a concentrated syrup. The syrup should last for a year, if kept in an airtight container in your refrigerator.
Stevia Conversion Chart
|1 cup sugar||1 teaspoon stevia leaf powder or 1 teaspoon stevia extract|
|1 tablespoon sugar||.25 teaspoon stevia powder or 6-9 drops stevia extract|
|1 teaspoon sugar||a pinch stevia powder or 2-4 drops stevia extract|
Stevia is becoming a popular plant and is readily available at most local nurseries. Thankfully it has few pests and is easy to grow and preserve. Now that you know how to grow stevia and use it, will you be adding it to your garden this year?