Stevia Rebaudiana is an herb that is native to South America. In its native habitat it is considered a perennial. Here in central Illinois, it is a tender annual and must be brought indoors in the winter. On average, it will grow about 1-2 feet tall in this climate. Stevia will flourish in a pot or in the garden in full to part sun. The main thing to remember about caring for Stevia is do not let it bloom. Once the plant starts to bloom and set seeds, it will die. The formation of seeds will signal the end of the life cycle to the plant. If growing Stevia and blooms do start to form, just pinch off the blooms and the plant will be okay. Of course if you grow it for the production of seeds, you must let it bloom to collect the seeds. Stevia can be grown from seed but it is slow to germinate and slow to grow. In addition, the seed germination rate is poor and only a small percentage of the seeds will actually come up. It is better to purchase Stevia plants or start your plants from cuttings. Many nurseries are now starting to carry Stevia in the spring.
I, personally, have been growing and experimenting with Stevia for over 10 years. It can be used to sweeten drinks, baked goods, soups, main dishes, etc. There has been a lot of controversy with calling Stevia a sweetener in the United States. But in its native country and in other parts of the world it has been used as a sweetener for years. The dried Stevia leaves are 30 times sweeter than sugar, while the Stevia powder is up to 300 times sweeter. The easiest ways to access the sweetness of Stevia is by adding a whole leaf or two to your cup while making a hot beverage and pouring the hot liquid over the leave(s). You can also air dry the leaves on the stems by bundling several together with a rubber band and hanging it in a dark, well-ventilated area until dry. Once dry, remove the leaves from the stems and include it in your favorite recipe. Dried Stevia leaves will retain their sweet flavor for several months as long as they are placed in an air-tight container (ziptop bags work well), away from direct light and heat.
Baking with Stevia can be challenging but is also very rewarding. What other plant can sweeten and help to satisfy your sugar cravings without raising your blood sugar levels? Follow with me on The Simple Heart of Life in the upcoming months as I continue to experiment with Stevia and share many of the tips I have learned along the way. As a true sugar addict, Stevia has been a very welcome addition to my garden!