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How I Grow and Harvest Stevia

Updated on March 21, 2017
LongTimeMother profile image

LTM's extensive organic gardens feature fruit trees, vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, grapes, and berries.

Suddenly the world is talking about stevia. A natural herb with natural sweetness and no calories (at least none that are processed by the human body), stevia is promoted as a solution to many of the world's problems, including obesity and negative side-effects associated with artificial sweeteners.

I have been growing and harvesting stevia plants for more than a decade and have a few useful tips to share about how to grow, harvest, dry, and store it. Here's my experience.

Which Stevia Plant Should I Buy?

I have been an organic gardener with a special interest in herbs and spices for nearly 30 years and in that time I have developed very specific requirements when choosing plants to include in my garden. Here's my simple advice for how to choose the best one:

  1. When you first arrive at your local plant nursery, make a beeline for the herb section. That's where you should find stevia plants. Before you go anywhere else in the store, pick a stevia leaf from a plant that catches your eye and bite into it. The leaves of individual plants can look slightly different in size, shape, or texture. Don't worry about cosmetic differences— the test is in the taste.
    If the plant is small and young, the leaf will be tiny. That's fine. Any leaf is good for this test.
  2. Bite it a couple of times. Whether or not you choose to chew the leaf and then swallow it makes no difference. You just need to break the leaf in your mouth, releasing the sweetness.
  3. Now set that particular plant in a position where you can identify it again, and wander around the store doing your other shopping.
  4. If you can still taste the pleasant sweetness on your lips and inside your mouth half an hour later, that's the plant to buy!
  5. If you don't have a pleasant long-lasting sensation, taste-test another plant.

This stevia plant grows in a raised wooden planter box in an enclosed shadecloth area alongside hot chili peppers.
This stevia plant grows in a raised wooden planter box in an enclosed shadecloth area alongside hot chili peppers. | Source

How to Grow the Sweetest Stevia

Stevia is one herb that requires a good deal of attention if you want to keep it sweet.

Obviously, one reason for keeping an eye on it is to ensure it gets enough water. But the most important reason for checking it daily is to keep its leaves really sweet, you MUST NOT let it flower.

Make sure you look at it every day. In a nice, warm climate, plant it close to your kitchen door, or plant it in pots and keep it on your balcony or somewhere protected, but don't plant it at the bottom of the garden where it might be forgotten for weeks.

To make stevia powder, simply crush your dried stevia leaves.
To make stevia powder, simply crush your dried stevia leaves. | Source

LTM's Top Tip: Do Not Let Stevia Form Flowers

As soon as it flowers, the leaves lose much of their sweetness. I don't know why, but take my word for it. I have been growing stevia for over ten years, and it happens every time. Suddenly, the same-sized leaf from the same plant has a very different taste. (I'm told it doesn't lose any of its medicinal properties, so if you are growing it to help address a health issue, it probably won't matter much. However, the taste changes dramatically.)

When growing it to use as a natural sweetener, pick the tops out of each stem as soon as you see the slightest hint of a flower bud.

With experience, you will find it is easy to watch your stevia plants and 'nip them in the bud' before you lose the sweet sensation.

I like to keep at least one stevia plant in a pot, ready to bring indoors before the first frost. This one shares a pot with mugwort.
I like to keep at least one stevia plant in a pot, ready to bring indoors before the first frost. This one shares a pot with mugwort. | Source

Potential Problems When Growing Stevia

In many ways, stevia is an easy plant to grow. Give it a nice loamy soil in the ground or in a pot, water it regularly, and it will grow to a height of about 24 inches. It is not a very big plant, so it doesn't need much room.

There are, however, a few things to remember if you want to avoid problems:

  • Don't let it become waterlogged. If you grow it in a pot, let it drain freely. Waterlogged plants will develop wet, dark leaves that die.
  • Protect it from frost. I stupidly lost all my stevia plants by failing to anticipate an extremely severe early frost. Since then, I've taken cuttings from other plants (lucky I have friends in warmer climates) and grown enough to experiment with future options. I now have stevia growing in my greenhouse, in my enclosed shadecloth area (where chili peppers survived last year), and in pots. The pots will be moved indoors long before I anticipate any frosts.
  • Water regularly, and mulch plants growing directly in the ground. You'll notice the leaves wilt when the plant is dry. The good news is that stevia revives effectively if you promptly give it a drink. (So again, I stress, plant it where you can see it daily!)
  • Keep an eye out for slugs and snails. Many people claim it is a 'pest free' plant, but I don't think that's really accurate. As with all plants, you'll need to keep watch for potential pests.

Tips for Harvesting Stevia

I love the way people make videos and make them available for us all to watch. A great deal of effort has gone into making the video below, which is great, but I'd like to make a few suggestions to help you get better results. Here are my personal tips:

  1. Don't wash your stevia in your kitchen sink. Wash it in a clean glass bowl under clean, flowing water. (Catch the flowing water in a bowl, and use it to water your plants.) You probably only use a tiny amount of stevia at any one time, so it is important to ensure that you are not storing it with any of the contaminants that might be in your sink.
  2. Instead of leaving the leaves outdoors for 10 to 12 hours to dry (exposed to flies and other insects plus a questionable outdoor table top) as this lady did, just shake the cuttings a little and sponge them off with a paper towel or tie them with a rubber band and hang them in your kitchen for long enough for most of the water to drop off. Then remove the individual leaves and put them in a paper bag in a warm place in your kitchen. Shake the bag every time you walk past it (to increase air flow and shuffle the leaves around.) Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, it could take them 24 hours to dry. As the lady effectively demonstrates, they'll sound crunchy.
  3. If you don't have a coffee grinder, simply use a rolling pin or a bottle to crush the leaves and create a powder. If they are crunchy enough and didn't dry flat, you may not need to remove the leaves from the paper bag. Just lay it flat and roll over the top surface of the bag.

The most important observation I made when watching this video is the timing of the lady's harvest. Her leaves would be much sweeter had she harvested them a few weeks earlier.

The Problem With Commercial Stevia Products

A couple of years ago when the makers of Coca-Cola and Pepsi decided to use stevia extracts in their diet drinks in America and produce packets of stevia-based sweeteners for general consumption, their PR machines moved into overdrive and the media was flooded with positive stories. Prior to that, the US was very opposed to stevia. The FDA, as I recall, condemned it.

When I used to write about the health benefits of stevia on another site a decade ago, the audience was very skeptical about it being a healthy alternative to sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Recently, at least a few scientists have complained that using ethanol instead of water when extracting Rebania-A from stevia leaves (in an effort to obtain a stronger, sweeter extract), makes a product that is promoted as being 'natural' not really natural enough. There is debate about whether or not ethanol-tainted stevia would meet the standards in some European Union countries. But the US, of course, has its own standards.

I am not in America so I cannot check for myself, but I've been told that Coca-Cola promotes its 'Fanta Still' as a healthier product because it includes stevia ... but the ingredients also include sugar. Where is the logic in adding sugar to a sugar alternative? I hope it isn't true.

Stevia extracts in tablet form: Much less appealing than a handful of fresh or dried leaves.
Stevia extracts in tablet form: Much less appealing than a handful of fresh or dried leaves. | Source

Stevia Is Sweeter Than Sugar

Stevia extracts, we are told, are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Who needs a product 300 times sweeter than sugar? Is anyone who generally puts a teaspoon of sugar in their tea or coffee going to use 1/300th of a teaspoon of stevia extract instead? Of course not.

Companies making stevia products may use other additives instead of offering pure stevia. The next time you buy one of these products— even if it is a packet of sweetener in powder or tablet form— take a close look at the packaging and see if your stevia is pure. Many new stevia products reportedly have a strong aftertaste of licorice.

Surely the health benefits of using it in its natural form should be enough to excite the average consumer. A gift from nature, the plant is already extraordinarily sweet, but presumably the processing method is what enables a company to patent a product. If a company can't patent the food itself, why would they bother promoting it?

If you want true health benefits, I suggest you buy dried organic stevia leaves or grow your own!

Stevia shouldn't taste like licorice. (Licorice root is only 50 times sweeter than sugar, lol.) If you want the taste of licorice you can grow your own like I do, but licorice needs considerable care and takes up a lot of space in the garden.
Stevia shouldn't taste like licorice. (Licorice root is only 50 times sweeter than sugar, lol.) If you want the taste of licorice you can grow your own like I do, but licorice needs considerable care and takes up a lot of space in the garden. | Source

Finding It in a Store (If You Can't Grow Your Own)

Is It Easier to Grow Stevia from Plants or Seeds?

If you are dealing with diabetes, taking steps to lose weight, or simply wanting to make healthier lifestyle choices, switch to stevia as your preferred sweetener. No other sweetener can claim to be both 100% natural and free of unwanted calories.

Buy one single Stevia rebaudiana plant and, with care and attention, it can be used to generate more. Take cuttings from your first plant once it has time to become established (pick and dry most of the leaves before planting the cutting).

I believe it is much easier to grow it from cuttings than from seeds. However, if you cannot obtain the plant in your region, purchasing a pack of seeds may be your only option. Either way, I believe it is worth the effort. You can improve your health— and save money— by growing and harvesting your own natural stevia.

A Doctor's Opinion of Stevia

© 2013 LongTimeMother

What is your experience with stevia?

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    • liesl5858 profile image

      Linda Bryen 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hello! LongTimeMother, what a great hub about stevia plant, to be honest, this is the first time I heard of it. I haven't even seen a stevia plant yet. I will have a look out for stevia plant in the garden centres. Thanks for sharing your most useful and interesting hub. Voted up and will pin it.

    • LongTimeMother profile image
      Author

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for the vote and the pin, liesl5858. I hope you manage to find it in your local garden centre. :)

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I'm curious that since stevia has been around for so long, why people haven't heard of it? Why use the artificial junk?

    • LongTimeMother profile image
      Author

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      lol. There are lots of good foods and herbs that have been ignored and forgotten by entire generations. I am pleased to see more people becoming aware of natural alternatives. Until now, people like myself were considered 'slightly eccentric' for using a plant like stevia as an alternative sweetener.

      Suddenly it has entered the mainstream. :)

    • Easy Exercise profile image

      Kelly A Burnett 3 years ago from United States

      America I am glad to hear has stepped up to the plate on plant. Voted up! Excellent source of information and I especially enjoyed your critique and helpful hints on the video given. I heard about this at work and wanted to learn more. Very comprehensive article. I would love to see a photo of stevia in your garden. Also, photos will help with the search engine being about to find this great hub.

    • LongTimeMother profile image
      Author

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      Hi Easy Exercise. Thanks for the vote.

      I have a small mountain of dried stevia leaves in bottles to keep me going for a long time, which is lucky because the frost killed my most recent plants when I failed to move them into the greenhouse in time. I have photos of living plants somewhere but I am the world's worst when it comes to filing photos.

      Fortunately I have started lots of my friends growing stevia over the years. As soon as I visit their homes (in warmer climates than where I currently live) I will dig up a few plants and take more care avoiding frost. Meanwhile I'll add a photo of some of my dried stevia leaves.

      If I take a brand new photo I won't have time to lose track of it, lol. Thanks for the suggestion. )

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 3 years ago from United States

      I can only grow stevia here in MD as an annual. Any luck overwintering it indoors?

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

      An interesting read and your tips after the first video are top notch. Thanks for reminding me to go harvest my stevia and get ahead of its flowering time.

    • LongTimeMother profile image
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      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      Hi TDF. In our temperate climate the greenhouse keeps stevia alive. Not as active as during summer, but alive at least. :)

    • LongTimeMother profile image
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      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      RTalloni, it is easy to continually pick and dry leaves throughout the season. Or you can wait until your plant is fully grown. The main thing is to keep nipping the buds. Might be worthwhile picking and drying some leaves while you think of it. :)

    • profile image

      Kate 3 years ago

      You taught me how to grow chia in another article so I have come now to learn how to grow stevia. Your advice is always very clear and very helpful. I am one person who is very grateful.

    • LongTimeMother profile image
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      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      Hi Kate. Stevia is nowhere near as exhuberant and lively as chia. Far more demure and polite (as far as plant personalities go, lol) but certainly worth the effort! A very good choice. :)

    • profile image

      sheila 3 years ago

      thank you do much for this information. Solves all the problems I had with my plants......... doing pretty much everything wrong so no wonder I was not happy with the results with my plants.

    • LongTimeMother profile image
      Author

      LongTimeMother 3 years ago from Australia

      Hello Sheila. I am happy to have helped you. Good luck with your plants from here on. :)

    • profile image

      D Martin 2 years ago

      Hello - thank you for this info. You're on my favs list now. I wish I had read this weeks earlier. My stevia has lots of buds and blooms, if I dead head the buds/flowers will the leaves get sweet again or am I just out of luck until next year?

    • LongTimeMother profile image
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      LongTimeMother 2 years ago from Australia

      Hello D Martin. I suggest you quickly remove any buds and flowers. Have you tasted the leaves? Chew one and please let me know how would you describe the taste?

    • profile image

      L Carswell 21 months ago

      Hi LTM! Really enjoyed this article and the one on chia seeds. One question/problem I am having with growing my own stevia: it seems to be very limp and grows more like a vine than a plant. I have been staking it like you would a tomato plant to keep it from simply laying curled on the dirt. Is that normal? I'm growing it in a pot on my back porch, which is screened in and fairly shady.

    • LongTimeMother profile image
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      LongTimeMother 21 months ago from Australia

      Oh, it sounds to me like your stevia is desperately trying to reach some sunshine. Many plants grow long and limp when their environment is too shady.

      Stevia stems should be able to hold the weight of the leaves, upright and strong. Trim off some of the excess growth and just leave a stump for new leaves to form. Regular trimming helps make stevia bushier.

      Stevia is said to grow best in a moist, sandy, acid soil but I have grown it in potting mix in pots as well as planted directly in my garden without problems.

      Your problem is likely to be the location of your pot. Stevia definitely likes sunshine. One of mine receives dappled sunshine through a light shade cloth, but it also receives direct morning sun through the open end of my shaded area. Those in the garden grow among other, taller plants that block sunshine in the middle of the day.

      I suggest you move your pot into a sunnier position - but don't leave it all day in relentless sun. Stevia plants wilt in the hottest summer months unless they have some level of protection.

      Your pot should offer the plant rich, loose, well-drained soil. If your pot's soil is too compact, consider carefully replanting into fresh soil. If it is summer now where you live, water it regularly but never let it become waterlogged.

      Mulch helps prevent the feeder roots from drying out. Liquid seaweed fertilizer is good for stevia. So is a nice comfrey leaf tea, if you grow your own comfrey. :)

      Good luck restoring your stevia's health. Please let me know how it works out for you.

    • profile image

      L Carswell 21 months ago

      Thanks, I will! I THOUGHT it might be something about the lack of enough sunshine, but wasn't sure, since most information I've seen warns not to let it have direct sunlight. Guess they meant TOO MUCH sunlight, eh? I will fix the problem and send you before and after pictures.

      Looking forward to having better stevia plants!

    • LongTimeMother profile image
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      LongTimeMother 20 months ago from Australia

      I look forward to hearing news of your success, L Carswell. Good luck.

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