Stevia grows best in zones 8-11. The plant requires warm temperatures, adequate water, and full sunlight. Stevia is suited to loamy or sandy soil, with a pH between 6.7-7.2.
The plant grows 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and blooms in August. Do not add fertilizer to the soil that is high in nitrogen. Mulch should be added in order to keep the plant cool and moist. Remove any weeds because branches of the Stevia leave are delicate and break easily. Plant should only be harvested in the morning when the sugar content is high. (2)
Stevia is considered to be an environmentally sustainable crop for several reasons. Because it is commonly used as a sugar substitute, stevia makes a great environmentally friendly replacement for sugar because it can be 400 times sweeter than sugar, so therefore you will use less. The plant requires less land, water, and energy to produce the same levels of sweetness as other crops, which allows farmers to better utilize the land they can save by cultivating stevia as opposed to cane sugar. Stevia’s carbon footprint is 55% lower than beet sugar and 29% lower than cane sugar. Overall, stevia is a more sustainable sugar alternative. (3)
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
Stevia is used to help control diabetes because it passes through the digestive tract without breaking down. It contains no calories. It has been seen to lower blood pressure. It is used by to help lose weight because it reduces cravings for sweet or fatty foods (1). Research on Stevia has not been completely conclusive; stevia was originally banned in the US because one study argued it may contribute to cancer. This ban was then lifted when additional research several years later refuted the findings and argued it was safe to use a sweetener. Therefore, while stevia is allowed as an additive in many other countries, it can not be classified as such in the US - only sold as a sweetener.
Significance to Cultural Communities
Stevia is native to Paraguay. The Guarani Indians of the Paraguayan Highlands called it 'caá-êhê,' which means sweet herb. The Guarani Indians and Mestizos would use it to sweeten tea or other foods. They also chewed the dried leaves as a snack. The Japanese use stevia as a sweetener in drinks, food, and candy (1). Stevia is now becoming a popular sugar substitute in America, with large corporations capitalizing and marketing the product as a healthier alternative to sugar (e.g. Truvia). Japan is now the largest consumer of stevia, which is used to sweeten soy sauce, pickles, and soft drinks.
1. Goyal, S. K., & Goyal, R. K. (2010). Stevia ( Stevia rebaudiana ) a bio-sweetener: a review. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 61(1), 1-10. Retrieved from http://wateryouwatingfor.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/stevia.pdf
2. Hulac, B. (n.d.). How to Grow Stevia. Retrieved October 5, 2013, from Organic Gardening website: http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/growing-guide-stevia?page=0,1
3. “Farming and Sustainability; Stevia Farming.” Global Stevia Institute. http://globalsteviainstitute.com/learn-about-stevia/farming-sustainability/