Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

STEVIA: HOW SWEET IT IS

© Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design.

I grow culinary herbs on our condo rooftop and make them available to everyone in the building. Fortunately for my selfish needs, 95% of the residents don’t seem to cook, or don’t like fresh herbs, so there’s plenty for the few of us who do.

I usually have old favorites like basil, thyme, rosemary, lavender, cilantro, dill, mint, perilla, calendula and anise hyssop but the collection varies from year to year and I’m always excited to try a new taste. This year I NEEDED Stevia rebaudiana, commonly called honey leaf, candy leaf, sweet leaf, or sweet herb, and I planted two 4" pots in larger containers.

When I nibbled a leaf in
May, I wondered what
the excitement was
about. I’d read that
stevia is 200 to 300
times sweeter than
sugar, and this leaf
had just a tinge of
sweetness.But by late
September, when tiny
white blooms appeared
and the leaves were
ready to harvest,
they were infinitely
sweeter.

Right, stevia and thyme

In the garden stevia is
not a pretty plant;
leaves and flowers are
quite undistinguished. It grows as a small shrub with shallow roots, native to tropical and subtropical regions of South America like Paraguay & Brazil but it won’t winter over here. Plant after soil has warmed, in New York City, late May or early June, in an area with excellent drainage.

To harvest I cut all
the stems from one
plant, rinsed them
off and hung them
to dry. I’ll save them
for a lecture/demo,
so audience mem-
bers can taste my
organically grown
herb. The other
plant I dug up
and placed in a pot
on my sunny office
window. I could have
saved the plant by
taking cuttings, but
not this time around.

The leaves are the
sweetest part: stems
and veins contain
some bitterness.
Stevia is reported to
have no carbs and
no calories because
the sweetening mol-
ecule can’t be ab-
sorbed by the intes-
tines. Many think it
reduces blood
pressure, is a diuretic
and is useful for dia-
betics as a natural
sweetener. There are
some vague indica-
tions that stevia may
reduce fertility, which
in my Grandma years,
is not something I’m
personally concerned
with.

In health food stores
it’s sold bagged as dried leaves, chopped into powder or crystallized,
as an herbal supplement. Sweetness depends on the concentration so recipes are hard to figure.

Above: Stevia hanging to dry in my NYC closet, with peonies, lavender, goldenrod, etc..

Try a crushed fresh leaf or two in a pitcher of fresh lemonade or iced tea. To sweeten hot tea or coffee, brew along with the tea leaves or coffee grounds.

Buy stevia in spring at your favorite nursery or on-line from an herb grower like my favorite, Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, New Jersey.

Now if I can only stop myself from reaching out and nibbling on the sweet stuff every day I might have a plant left come spring.

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