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SPRING TO IT 2001

How Sweet It Is

Sugary Stevia Has No Calories, Is Easy to Grow, and Kids Like It Too

March 24, 2001|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I first sampled sweet leaf (Stevia rebaudiana), I was impressed. Although I'd been told that it's much sweeter than sugar, I didn't expect the intense sensation that filled my mouth when I bit into a leaf.

My 5-year-old son, Jeremy, was even more taken with stevia. He immediately claimed it as his favorite plant and proceeded to sample the leaves every day, nearly stripping the plant bare. He was so enthralled with stevia, he asked me to sign a contract stating that I would write this story for his sixth birthday.

Moms have to keep their promises.

Known as the sweet herb of Paraguay, the leaves of this tender perennial from the chrysanthemum family contain stevioside, a sweetener estimated to be 100 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. The leaves can be used fresh or dried. You can eat them right off the plant or use them in a variety of foods, including beverages, baked goods and main entrees.

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"Stevia has been around forever, but gardeners are just finding out about it," said Jamie Platt, assistant manager at Armstrong Garden Center in Costa Mesa, where requests for the plants have increased dramatically.

Although stevia is available in the United States as a nutritional supplement, it has been used extensively in other parts of the world for many years. In Japan, the herb can be found in candy, gum, baked goods, tea, ice cream and cereal.

Stevia has no calories and studies have shown that it does not cause cavities. It is also heat stable and can be used for cooking and baking.

For a plant with so many benefits, stevia is extremely easy to grow, harvest and use, said V.J. Billings, owner of Mountain Valley Growers, a certified organic mail-order company in Squaw Valley, Calif., that sells the plants.

Stevia's active growth period is April through November, although it will often overwinter in mild climates and produce some growth during cold months.

You can find plants now through mail-order companies and in nurseries in the next couple of weeks.

To have success growing stevia, keep the following tips in mind:

* Plant in full sun. "If you don't provide stevia with enough sun, it will become leggy and may produce flowers instead of leaves," Billings said. "If flowers do appear, remove them and put the plant in stronger light."

* Keep moist, but provide good drainage. "Stevia likes to be well-watered, but does poorly with wet feet," said Sharon Kaszan, product development horticulturist for the Burpee company, a Warminster, Pa., mail-order firm that carries the plants.

Plant stevia in well-draining soil and keep moist, but not soggy.

If planting in the ground, thoroughly amend clay soil, Platt said.

"Improve drainage by mixing native soil with at least 50% compost and add gypsum according to package directions," he said.

When planting in a container, use an organic potting soil that has additional nutrients and pumice or perlite for good drainage. Use a 10- to 12-inch pot per plant.

* Plant several. Stevia isn't a large plant. Each grows only 18 inches tall and wide. If you plan on using the leaves for a variety of purposes, plant a few. A good rule of thumb is one to two plants per person.

* Fertilize occasionally. Sweet leaf is a light feeder. Most experts suggest fertilizing once in spring when new growth appears. Use a well-balanced organic solution.

* Mulch. Keep the plant's root zone moist and soil organisms active by mulching around the base of stevia.

* Prune regularly. Prevent stevia from producing flowers and becoming lanky by pruning regularly. Cut off plant tips often, which will create a healthier, bushier plant. Never prune a plant back by more than 50% or it may die.

* Repot each spring. For a healthy plant, it's important to replace the potting soil. Use a high-quality organic potting soil that is composed of peat moss and perlite and has added fertilizer, such as manure.

Resources

* Armstrong Garden Centers are located throughout Orange County. (800) 557-5268.

* Mountain Valley Growers, (559) 338-2775; http://www.mountainvalleygrowers.com.

* Burpee company, (800) 888-1447; http://www.burpee.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Usage Ideas

Home-grown stevia can be used in several ways. You can add the fresh leaves to beverages. Three to four leaves will sweeten a cup of tea. Or cut fresh leaves up and add them to a fruit salad.

Stevia also dries well. Bundle and hang upside down to air dry, or spread on a baking sheet and dry on the lowest setting in the oven.

After the leaves are dry and brittle, powder them or make a sweet liquid. To make a liquid, place herb leaves in a tea ball in water or milk and bring the liquid to a boil.

Turn off and let the stevia steep for a half an hour, or until the liquid retains the desired sweetness. Use liquid as a sweetening agent.

For more ideas, consult "The Stevia Cookbook: Cooking with Nature's Calorie-Free Sweetener," by Ray Sahelian and Donna Gates (Avery, 1999, $12.95).

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