There are around 240 species of herbs and shrubs that belong to Stevia genus. Stevia rebaudiana is a perennial shrub which is native to Paraguay. It is popular for its sweet leaves and is commonly called sweetleaf, sweet leaf, sugarleaf, or simply stevia. The extracts of this plant are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, and medical research has shown that it can be used for treating health problems like obesity and high blood pressure.
It is a flowering shrub, which looks quite similar to mint. It has small oblong-shaped leaves with hair, it has flowers which grow in bunches of two to six. The average width of a stevia plant is two feet and the height can be between two or three feet, depending upon the content in the soil. Among all the species of stevia genus, Stevia rebaudiana is the sweetest and hence very popular. The plants in the Stevia genus are native to the regions of South America and Central America. These species can be found in semi-arid, subtropical, and tropical regions. They are also known to grow as far as north of New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.
Growing at Home
To grow it at home, you can sow the seeds in a shallow pot with regular gardening soil. Use soil which is sandy and has a neutral soil pH. You can also purchase these plants online, if you don't wish to grow stevia from seeds. As the plant becomes three to four inches tall, transplant it into garden. For plant care, keep watering the plant regularly and maintain the soil moist. Ensure proper drainage and fertilize using a regular garden fertilizer. To avoid accidentally damaging the plant, lay a layer of mulch which is made of bark or grass clipping around the plants. Make sure the plant gets plenty of sunlight. For harvesting, the right time is in the fall. Harvesting can also be done as soon as you see flowers appearing on the plant. You can use a pair of scissors or gardening shears to harvest the plant.
Stevia is mainly used as a sugar and artificial sweetener replacement and dietary supplement. The extract of the leaves is used for many culinary purposes. However, when its extract is used in high concentration it can create a bitter aftertaste. As stevia extract is 300 times sweeter than sugar, one needs to be careful with the amount of the extract one should use for cooking. It is safe for diabetics, as it doesn't affect the blood sugar levels. It doesn't have any neurological or renal side effects like that of artificial sweeteners. It has antifungal and antibacterial properties, which are used to make many herbal medicine, tonics for diabetes, and daily usage items like toothpaste. A mild stevia leaf tea is a good remedy for an upset stomach.
Some people who take stevia extract or stevioside may experience side effects like bloating or nausea. Certain people might also experience dizziness, muscle ache, and numbness as stevia side effects. Special precaution should be taken while having stevia during pregnancy or breast feeding. In such cases, it is better to stay on the safe side and avoid using it.
Stevia is banned in the USA by FDA since the 1990s, unless it is labeled as a supplement. Though, it has many benefits, it is important that you take it in recommended dosage and consult your doctor if you have any health condition before using it as a sweetener.