Stevia, the sweetleaf
The recent snap of warm weather was an exciting glimpse of spring. I love winter and have thoroughly enjoyed the snow this year, but the gardener in me cannot help but be enticed by the promise of a new gardening season. I took a chance and used the short window of thawed ground and temperatures in the 50s to finish some daffodil planting that should have been wrapped up in October. We’ll see if that turned out to be a wise decision. As the cold took hold once again, I put down my bulb planter and picked up a few seed catalogs. Always dangerous. I was very happy with my garden last year and my emphasis on herbs. I plan to repeat many of last year’s plantings, with a few new choices peppered in. One of my newer herbs will be stevia.
I actually grew stevia last year for the first time, but never really did anything with it. I used it once to sweeten sun tea; but found the flavor bitter. It was one of the first plants I stopped watering in the drought and thought maybe another time. It was not until recently that I learned my sun tea tasted bitter because I had used stevia incorrectly. I added fresh leaves, when in fact the ideal sweetness comes from dry leaves. More on that later. Stevia has moved back to the top of the list and I am excited about the possibilities of my harvest.
Stevia, Stevia rebaudiana, is an herb in the Asteraecae (sunflower) family. It is commonly referred to as sweetleaf. It has been used as a natural sweetener for hundreds of years in North and South America. Stevia extract is approximately 300 times sweeter than sugar and is very easily grown and harvested. It is most popular in Japan, but has recently become very accessible in the United States. There is a sugar substitute sold under the name Stevia, which is crystallized stevia extract. I would prefer to make my own extract to use as a natural sweetener. Stevia is an excellent choice for those looking to produce a sugar substitute in some form. Far less work, expense, and commitment than tending a honeybee hive.
It is recommended that stevia is grown from cuttings rather than from seed, as stevia seeds are notoriously slow and unreliable to germinate. Stevia will grow well in rich soil, amended with compost, in full sun-partial shade. Stevia will wilt in frost so it must not be planted until after May 15 in our growing zone. The ideal time to harvest stevia is late in the season before the first frost. The larger and deeper green stevia leaves are, the stronger the sweetness. Fresh stevia leaves have a bitter taste and must be dried. The water in the leaves causes this bitterness, so before making an extract allow the leaves to thoroughly dry.
Once leaves are dry there are a number of ways to make extract to use as sweetener. Infusions can be made with oil, vinegar, or vodka. I plan to use my stevia extract for baking, so I will make vodka infusions. The alcohol will cook off and leave sweetness behind. Another easy way to use stevia for sweetness is to simply add a dry leaf to a cup of tea.
I am always excited to learn about new ways I can use my garden to produce ingredients for my cooking. It really is rewarding to look in your pantry or freezer in the dead of winter and have a little taste of your summer garden.
Community Garden Day planned
Join the Delaware County Master Gardeners for the annual Community Garden Day. This year it will take place on Feb. 9 at the Columbus State Community College Delaware branch.
The event will begin at 10 a.m. and end at 4 p.m. Feb. 9. The registration is open to the public, but reservations must be made by Feb. 1. To register, call the OSU Extension Office at 740–833-2030 or download a registration form at delaware.osu.edu and mail to the extension office. Seating is limited, so make sure you sign up soon. The cost is $20 for the day and includes a box lunch, coffee and handouts. Hope to see you all there for a great day full of gardening inspiration.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.