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Sweeten up that cup of tea with sweet stevia leaves from your own garden. Stevia is a calorie-free herb that’s used as an alternative to sugar. Except for the warmest areas of the country, it’s grown as an annual.
Karen Kennedy is the education coordinator for the Herb Society of America. She says stevia will thrive pretty much anywhere in the United States, and can be found in local garden centers.
"Wholesale growers are producing them in 4” pots and you can find them as cuttings. If you can’t find them as cuttings, you can mail order them as small plants from a number of places. You can also do seeds," says Kennedy. "Seeds however are a little trickier because this particular plant is a little harder to germinate and grow from seed, and you can have some variability as to sweetness."
Stevia is happy in gardens or containers but has to be in full sun and kept moist because it’s not a drought-tolerant herb.
At any time while it’s growing, you can pick a few fresh leaves for tea or eat them right off the plant.
"It is sweet all season long, but commercially they do harvest it towards fall because the sugar content is the highest right before it flowers, or with maybe one or two flowers open," she says. "If you’re going to dry it, you harvest it then and can dry it at that point."
Kennedy says a new variety to try is called “Sweetie Star”. Some stevia plants have a bitterness, or a bit of an after-taste, and this one is not supposed to have that.
Although it’s used in place of sugar, stevia can’t be used one-for-one. It can range from 100-to-300-times more sweet than sugar, so a little goes a long way.