Some of you may already know about Stevia, also called Honey Leaf and Yerba Dulce, a plant used as a sweetener - just a teaspoonful of the powder, depending how the plant was grown of course - can be equivalent to a cupfull of sugar.
Many claims are made for Stevia, that it has properties which help maintain blood sugar levels, it improves digestion, protects against Candida and even suppresses bacterial growth around teeth. Anything that helps reduce the amount of sugar we consume is a good thing and I grow it to reduce our honey consumption and be self-sufficient in a plant which I use in cakes, for sweetening drinks and bottling fruit.
I've been looking for seeds or plants of Stevia for some time. As if by magic, I was given three plants for my birthday in April this year.
Our vegetable plot should be ideal for growing Stevia as an annual - although it's a herbaceous perennial shrub in its native sub-tropical Paraguay. The plant likes moist sandy soil - ideally in raised beds which prevent the plant from rotting. My plan was to lift the plants or take cuttings and overwinter them on the back terrace where, under plexiglass and with the heat of the south-facing wall the conditions are frost-free. My citrus and olive plants have done well there for the past few years.
After hardening it off for a couple of weeks, I planted one of the plants into the garden and it disappeared overnight - totally consumed by slugs who ate the stem almost down to the root!
I spent a few early mornings cutting the slugs into bite-sized chucks which our chickens gobbled down enthusiastically and felt confident enough to plant another - protected by a ring of wood ash to deter even more slugs. The second plant didn't do well and lost a lot of its leaves and despite my attempts to revive it by retransplating it into a pot, it died.
I kept the third plant in a pot and it's growing well. To get a good crop of leaves and to stop the plant flowering (It dies after flowering.) I nipped out the leader stems which has make the plant bushy and it's now a healthy specimen.
I've used the leaves to sweeten rhubarb in a crumble and the taste went well with the Angelica I put in with the rhubarb. I had to sprinkle some "real" sugar on top of the crumble because although it's heat stable and can be baked, Stevia doesn't carmelise like sugar, but it's good to know that I could be buying less sugar in the future.
As the weather warmed up I started taking cuttings from the mother plant. I took off the lower leaves, dipped the stem into a rooting hormone and put the cuttings into little pots full of sandy soil. So far, the cuttings put straight into soil are struggling and don't look as though they're going to make it but after seventeen days the cuttings I put into water look healthy and they've started shooting out little roots. I'll wait for another few days then pot them up to make new plants for the garden and to give away to friends.
When I've enough plants I'll put them into the potager to grow on and harvest the leaves for drying and storing in Autumn. Once the Stevia leaves are properly dried the leaves whole or ground to a fine powder will keep for years in glass jars.
I've a few other posts in the blog about Stevia - How to overwinter it and about the idea times and conditions for cuttings. Just click on the label "Stevia" below and you'll get all the posts on the same page.