Cut down on sugar – grow stevia

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How to grow the sugar herb, steviaFor a natural alternative to sugar, try Stevia rebaudiana, aka stevia, or the sugar herb. The leaves of this perennial herb are more than 20 times sweeter than sugar, and the extract stevioside is 300 times sweeter – and all this with zero calories. Just nibble on these leaves and you’ll see what I mean – they’re super sweet.

The compounds within stevia are resistant to heat, so the leaves can be used in cooking and baking with no adverse effects. Those same compounds are also very stable and can last for several years.

Stevia is most commonly used in the form of white stevia extract, a powder available from health food stores. But you can also use green stevia powder (the dried whole green leaves), or the fresh leaves. You can add the green stevia powder to your tea or coffee, or make a syrup from the crushed dried or fresh leaves (see below). And the great thing is, you can easily grow this herb yourself.


Stevia is a tender perennial so plant it in a warm, sheltered spot. In cooler areas, treat it as an annual or plant in pots and bring indoors over winter. Having said that, unless you live in the subtropics, I think this plant is best grown as an annual, as in the second year it tastes a little bitter.

Don’t let your plants dry out over summer, but neither let them sit in water. Plant in raised beds if your soil is heavy and dig in a little bit of well-aged compost. When plants are about 15-20cm high, pinch off the tips so they begin to branch out. If you don’t do this, the plants will grow straight up, with one stem.

Plants often get off to a slow start in temperate areas, but by midsummer growth kicks in.


Pick leaves between spring and late summer to use fresh. For drying, harvest just before flowering in midsummer/autumn when sweetness is at its highest. Dry then store in an air-tight container.

Alcohol-based stevia extract

Roughly chop a couple of handfuls of fresh or dried stevia leaves and place in a glass jar. Pour vodka over the leaves until they are just covered. Screw on lid. Leave for a couple of days (position out of direct sunlight), shaking gently a few times each day. After two days, strain the liquid through cheesecloth. Pour stevia liquid into a saucepan and cook over low heat – do not boil. Simmer gently for 20-30 minutes to drive off some of the alcohol and concentrate the extract. It will get darker and a bit thicker. If there is only a small amount of liquid, simmer for less time, otherwise you may boil it dry. Pour into a small, opaque bottle.

Simple water-based stevia extra

Place a couple of crushed or chopped leaves in a cup, pour over freshly boiled water and let seep. Taste after 15 minutes. If sweet enough, add desired amount to beverages. Steep longer for a sweeter brew. Store in fridge but use within a couple of days.

Plants are often available in the herb section at garden centres in summer. Or you can buy seeds from Egmont Seeds or Kings Seeds.

Jane Wrigglesworth

Jane Wrigglesworth edits Herb News, the journal of the Herb Federation of New Zealand Inc, and writes a monthly herb column for NZ Gardener magazine.

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