How I Grow and Harvest Stevia
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Now set that particular plant in a position where you can identify it again, and wander around the store doing your other shopping.
- 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!
- If you don't have a pleasant long-lasting sensation, taste-test another plant.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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?
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