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Gardening with Laurie: Stevia plant, easy to grow natural sweetener

By By Laurie Garretson
Oct. 3, 2013 at 5:03 a.m.

Laurie Garretson

The other day, I noticed a lady pouring three pink packets of that popular sugar substitute into her cup of coffee. Now, I'm not one who really cares for sweet things to eat or drink, but I think three of those packets are bound to make one sweet cup of coffee. Some people like a little coffee with their sugar.

According to the American Diabetes Association, the average American consumes 150 pounds of sugar a year. Wow, that's a lot of sugar and a lot of calories. I don't know if this estimate takes sugar substitutes into account or not.

There is an alternative to little sweetener packets and to real sugar. You can even grow it in your own garden. It's a stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana). Stevia is a natural sweetener that has no calories and doesn't "have a significant effect on blood glucose levels," according to the American Diabetes Association. Many of the little sweetener packets and commercial drink mixes are sweetened with a derivative of stevia.

Most of the raw stevia used in commercial products from large food corporations is produced in China. Unfortunately, many of the plant's healthful properties are then stripped from the plants in their processing techniques.

Using fresh or dried leaves from reliable sources or your own garden can contain up to seven sweet compounds, that range from 50-450 times sweeter than sugar and lots of antioxidants.

You can grow your own stevia plants in a well-drained area of your garden or in a container. Stevia leaves can be dried like any other herb. Most people tend to like the flavor better when made into a tea extract. Expect your stevia plant to grow about 2 to 21/2 feet tall and wide.

In our hot humid climate, plant it where it can get afternoon shade and good air circulation. Frequent pruning is necessary to keep the plant from getting leggy and weak. Stevia plants produce small, white flowers that are also edible.

Established stevia plants are considered to be short-lived perennials. During cold winters be sure to keep the plant well-mulched and cover when severe cold temperatures are predicted.

Here is a fast and easy way to to make an extract from dried stevia leaves. Lightly crush a hand full of dried leaves. Bring a couple of cups of water almost to a boil. Remove water from the heat, add the stevia and cover with lid. Let the extract steep for 30-40 minutes.

Strain the liquid off the leaves and preferably store in a dark-colored glass container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Three-quarters cup of this extract should be about equal to three cups of sugar.

As mentioned, stevia is very sweet, so always be very prudent with it. You can always add more if needed, but you can't take it out if it's oversweet.

Until next time, let's try to garden with nature, not against it, and maybe all our weeds will become wildflowers.

Laurie Garretson is a Victoria gardener and nursery owner. Send your gardening questions to laurie@vicad.com or in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77902.

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