Stevia rebaudiana (stevia for short) is a herb that is not grown as an ornamental plant, nor is it grown for its outstanding culinary attributes.
Sure it has nice, oblong, toothed leaves and a decent display of small, white flowers. But its outstanding attribute is one that no other herb can match.
I discovered stevia’s little secret some 25 years ago when Mom handed me a leaf to chew on. Since stevia is also known as “sugar-leaf,” I was expecting that it would have a subtle flavour with a touch of sweetness, yet nothing too sugary. Boy, was I wrong.
From the first bite, my taste buds were overwhelmed with an onslaught of sweet flavours. Had I been sampling the latest and greatest new super-sweet pineapple or watermelon variety, I would have expected a good sugar rush, but to get such a mouthful of sweetness from such a small green leaf was a real surprise.
Because of stevia’s incredibly sweet flavour, it has become very popular as a natural way to sweeten foods and drinks without adding a lot of household sugars.
Stevia is a member of the asteracea family, which includes a huge number of plant species — everything from artichokes and dandelions to marigolds, chrysanthemums and, sunflowers.
It’s indigenous to Paraguay and for centuries has been used there as a sweetener for drinks and some foods. The Paraguayans call it “caa-ehe.”
The concentrated sweetness contained within the leaves of stevia is by far its best feature, but strangely enough the plant itself contains very little sugar. The sweetness is due to a blend of a family of some nine plant compounds called ‘steviosides’ that aren’t true sugars, yet can be up to 400 times sweeter than sugar on a per-gram basis.
Still, while stevia and steviosides are naturally occurring, they have come to the market with some controversy. Back in the ’90s, stevia extracts were categorized as an artificial sweetener, and only fairly recently has Health Canada given the green light for discretionary consumption of steviosides.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: EASY
Stevia is not winter hardy here, but it can withstand temperatures as low as -6C, so if you plan on growing it in your garden, treat it as an annual bedding plant. Choose a spot that is well-drained and avoid boggy, clayish soils. Stevia is well adapted to semi-arid climates and can tolerate some drying. In fact, it’s best to let the plant show slight wilting before giving it a good shot of water to avoid root rot. If you want to grow it indoors, ensure that you place it under grow lights during the dark winter months and keep the roots moist, but never saturated with water.
HOW PERFECT IS IT?
For people who enjoy a bit of sweetness in their smoothies but don’t want to add calorie-rich sugars to the mix, stevia is the perfect solution. A very small quantity of leaf tissue packs a lot of sugary punch and provides that extra bit of sweet flavour that many of us enjoy.
If you plan on growing stevia outside, keep in mind that deer love it, so it might be best to place it in containers close to the house where you can keep an eye out for our four-legged friends. Sharing a bit of stevia with wildlife is fine, but I’m sure there isn’t a single deer that needs to watch his calories like we humans do.
Jim Hole is an owner of Hole’s Greenhouse in St. Albert.