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Growing some of that sweet stuff

May 10, 2011
By JOYCE COMINGORE, Garden Club of Cape Coral


Special to The Breeze

My oldest daughter found out recently, that she is diabetic, while doing all those free tests at a Health Fair. What started as a fun activity quickly turned into shock and worry she was already thyroid deficient. In these past months she has attended classes and meetings with other diabetics and health providers.

She is now growing the plant, Stevia. Her brother in Bradenton has been growing it hydroponically for several years now, just to make sweet tea. Years ago, I have a friend that grows herbs, who carries packets of Stevia in her purse, and she gave me one of them. This is how I came to be interested in learning more about Stevia.

Stevia rebaudiana is an extremely sweet noncaloric herb. It is in a genus of 240 species of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), related to lettuce, marigold and chicory, native to South and Central America, Mexico and as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Stevia's taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, but too much of it and you are left with a bitter licorice aftertaste. Its leaves appeal to the demand for lowcarbohydrate, low-sugar alternatives, and its negligible effect on blood glucose. They have 30 to 45 times the sweetness of ordinary table sugar. The leaves can be eaten fresh, put in teas, or dried, pulverized and sprinkled on foods. It has a taste that you have to get use to.

First researched by Spanish botanist and physician Petrus Jacobus Stevus, from whose Latinized name comes the word Stevia. Human use of this sweet species originated in South America. Swiss botanist Moises Santiago Bertoni, in 1899, first described the plant and its sweetness in detail during his research in eastern Paraguay.

For centuries, the Guarani peoples of Paraguay have used Stevia as a sweetener in their drinks and medicinal teas. There was only limited research until 1931, when two French chemists isolated the glycosides that gave Stevia its sweet taste, stevioside and rebaudioside. These compounds are 250 to 300 times as sweet as sucrose, are heat stable, pH stable and non-fermentable. Originally, Stevia grew wild in the highest regions of Paraguay and Brazil. Later, it was cultivated to use it as a sweetener until sugar cane was introduced by the Spanish and Portu-guese. Today, stevia is grown around the world.

In growing Stevia, be sure and choose Stevia rebaudiana, the only sweet Stevia. It is a tender perennial that grows wild in moist acid soil that is never soggy wet or has standing moisture. It doesn't like to dry out, either. Mounds or raised beds make soggy wet soil preventable. Avoid treated wood because of soil contamination, because you do want to be able to consume the leaves. Organic mulch and a consistent supply of water helps it to grow, ideally.

Since it freezes out, warm tropical climates are best for outdoor plantings. Seeds do not do well, sprouting a low percentage. My son says he cannot get them to grow, but my friend, Ginny, lets the plants reseed themselves and hers do well.

Only black or brown seeds with white innards are viable. They grow slowly, so allow 7 to 10 weeks for germination. It is probably best to propagate stevia by cuttings when the days are long, like now - spring and summertime. Rooting hormones are not really necessary.

Stevia is tolerant of most types of soil up to 7.5 pH, but occur naturally in 4 and 5 pH, which is why growing it in pots is great. Our soil doesn't cater to their needs unless you have filled a bed with highly organic soil. Plant seedlings at the same depth as they were growing when raised. Let them settle in with watering and apply a light layer of mulch. Their feeder roots are near the top of the soil, so they need light fertilizing with very low nitrogen, a vegetable fertilizer. Nitrogen promotes rapid growth and a lack of flavor. They seem to have insect repelling tendencies, but spraying with water or soap and water will do in any invaders. Cover the plants during any near freezes. Their prime time to produce is their second year, the third year they are getting a little spent, so replace after every three years.

Harvest as late as possible in the fall, because cooler temperatures and shorter days increase the intensity of the sweetness when they evolve into their reproductive state. They can be clipped down to nearly 4 inches high. The leaves need to be dried then pulverized. Heat is not needed as much as good air circulation. Sun drying for 12 hours is best, longer loses flavor. A dehydrator can also be used. A coffee grinder does well in pulverizing.

Sprinkle on cooking items. They don't really replace the bulk of sugar, but they do sweeten cooked foods. Applesauce or yogurt can fill in as bulk.

Stevia is just now beginning to come into its own. There is much speculation as to why FDA banned it as a sweetener in 1960. Pressure from other artificial sweetener companies, or even the sugar industry, are assumed to be the reason. It has been proven healthy and a boon in Japan where, since 1970, they cultivated it as an alternative to cyclamate and saccharin artificial sweeteners, which were suspected carcinogens. In 1991, after an anonymous complaint, FDA listed stevia as an unsafe additive to foods. The FDA handled it almost as if it were an illegal drug, with seizures, searches and embargoes. Since Stevia occurs naturally and requires no patent to produce, there has been a belief that the FDA acted in response to industry pressure. In 1995, in response to scientific pressure, the FDA revised its stance and allowed it to be used as a dietary supplement, but not a nutritional supplement. Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola got involved, and they can now use Stevia as a sweetener. Coca Cola and Cargill have produced an in-the-market product called Truvia, and I saw an ad for their new soft drink, Sprite Green. I went to the store and found Truvia on the shelf in a clear plastic container for sale, along with packets of Pure Via and Stevia In The Raw. If you're a fan of Sugar in the Raw, this is for you. To use Martha's phrase, "It's a good thing".

It's also good to thank a tree for life-giving oxygen and ridding us of bad air, carbon dioxide.

Joyce Comingore is a master gardener, director of the board for American Hibiscus Society, board member of the FM/LC Garden Council and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.

4-30-11 Breeze



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