Stevia and Sweet Cicely; Two Sweet Choices for Your Herb Garden
The leaves of the herb Stevia rebaudiana are up to 600 times sweeter than refined sugar with none of the health risks and zero calories. It’s the perfect herb choice for diabetics or anyone who wants to be healthy and lose weight without sacrificing their sweet tooth. You may now commence dancing in the streets.
So where has stevia been all your life? Stop that dancing for a second and I’ll tell you. Stevia has been used as a natural sweetener for thousands of years in Paraguay and is slowly moving into global markets. Why so slow? Hey, how did that soap box get there? Excuse me for a minute while I climb up on it.
Ahem. Hello again. Thanks for coming out. Well over 30 years ago Japan banned the use of artificial sweeteners and turned to stevia instead out of concern for the health of their citizens. They have been using stevia to sweeten everything from diet sodas to relish ever since. However, here in North America, stevia has yet to be approved as food safe. Think about that for a minute. An herb that’s been consumed by people for over a thousand years causes our government concern – chemicals not so much. Why? Because in North America nothing is sweeter than money. It is my opinion that the healthy profits and deep pockets of chemical sugar replacement companies are all that’s keeping stevia off our shelves.
However, Canadians are betting the farm that common sense will prevail. In southern Ontario and parts of the Okanogan, stevia is already being grown commercially, but so far it is only available in health food stores. You can change all that. Yes, you in the back trying to hide behind the catnip. Never underestimate the power of one mad herb gardener to change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has. They can fill our grocery shelves with artificial sweeteners, but they can’t stop us from growing stevia in our own back yard. Yeah! Garden hoe! Okay, okay, I’m getting down. Thanks for coming. There’s coffee and cupcakes made with stevia at the back.
Meanwhile, back in the herb patch it’s time to learn more about Stevia rebaudiana and its many charms.
SOME LIKE IT HOT . . .
Indigenous to a tropical climate, stevia will promptly fall over dead at the first frost so it’s not exactly a hardy herb. I just feel so passionate about getting this herb out there I had to include it. Especially now that almost all sugar beets grown in North America contain GMO (genetically modified organisms). You can keep this herb in frosty climates by planting it in large pots that can be moved indoors for winter. You can also lift the roots in the fall and store indoors in perlite or sand and then set in the ground again come spring. Or you can simply treat it as an annual, harvest the leaves over the summer and then start over from seed.
In the Garden:
Stevia (Zone 11+) can reach heights of 2-3 feet (60-90 cm) with a spread (width) of 2 feet (60 cm) or more. Loose, well drained soil is recommended. The plants need to be well mulched so the surface feeder roots won’t dry out. While this herb requires regular watering in dry periods it has a poor tolerance to water logging or to saline water or soils.
Stevia has pretty foliage but can be a bit long and lanky. It likes to flop about in a fashion not dissimilar to spouses on the couch when there are trellises, gazebos and clever little bridges to be built. Planting them in groups so they can lean on each other helps to keep them upright. Not unlike the support you might find in a garden club while grumbling about spouses who flop on the couch when there are trellises, gazebos and clever little bridges to be built. But I digress.
Harvesting: Collect leaves as required, preferably in late summer. They can then be dried and crushed into a powder. As soon as the plant flowers, the leaf production slows down, so be sure to remove any flower buds to encourage further leaf development. If the plant is left to flower, the leaf tips will take on a slightly bitter overtone and worse, if the flowers go to seed, the plant will die, so be sure to nip those flowers off in the bud!
Culinary Uses: One tablespoon (15 ml) of dried, powdered stevia is equivalent to about one cup (250 ml) of sugar. A homemade liquid sweetener can be made by pouring four cups (one litre) of boiling water over one tablespoon (15 ml) of dried leaves and leaving to infuse. Refrigerate and use within a few days or freeze for later. If using fresh leaves to replace dried quantities, multiply the amount by five. Six fresh large leaves chopped fine are equal to 1/2 cup (125 ml) of sugar when substituting in baking or cooked recipes. You can also make your own homemade stevia extract by combining 1 cup (250 ml) vodka with 3/4 cup (188 ml) fresh stevia leaves in a jar. Shake every day for 2 weeks, and then run through a coffee filter. Add a drop or two to beverages. A couple drops may not seem like much, but keep in mind that stevia can vary from 10 to 600 times sweeter than sugar, depending on a range of factors such as soil, climate and even the time of harvest. Generally two drops of extract is equal to one teaspoon (5 ml) of sugar.
You can also plunk a fresh leaf right into your tea or coffee. For lemonade, toss a dozen stevia leaves into a pitcher, cover with boiling water and chill. Squeeze in some fresh lemon juice and you’re done! If you grow lemon balm, toss in a few handfuls of fresh lemon balm leaves along with the fresh stevia, and you have yourself healthy, calorie-free lemonade.
Stevia is NOT a true substitute for sugar in all recipes. It doesn’t dissolve, it doesn’t make thick syrup and it won’t brown. It cannot be used to replace sugar in bread recipes, as it won’t interact properly with the yeast. Consider it more of a flavouring, much as you would vanilla. The following two books are packed with great recipes and helpful hints: The Stevia Cookbook: Cooking With Nature’s Calorie-Free Sweetener by Ray Sahelian, M.D. and Stevia Rebaudiana: Nature’s Sweet Secret by David Richard.
SOME LIKE IT COLD . . .
While stevia is only hardy if you park it on the windowsill for the winter, sweet cicely is tough as nails. If you live in the north, love the taste of liquorice, don’t want to bother with reseeding or carrying Stevia through the winter indoors, and are looking for something with ornamental qualities to boot (phew!) then the hardy perennial Sweet Cicely Myrrhis odorata could be just the herb for you.
Also known as British myrrh, sweet bracken, sweet fern or most aptly, “sugar saver” this is one sweet herb. Use of its young white flowers or leaves saves adding at least half the sugar to most recipes. This makes it another important herb for diabetics or anyone looking for a safe, natural sweetener.
The foliage may be reminiscent of tropical ferns, but don’t judge this plant by its leaves! Not only is it one of our hardiest herbs, it actually requires cold in order to germinate. When starting seed indoors you will need to stratify the seeds first by mixing them with some damp sand and placing them in a plastic bag in your fridge for four weeks. However, keep in mind that the seeds do not store well and are best planted fresh. Alternatively you can direct seed in the fall or if you wish, drop the fresh seeds into seed trays, cover with glass and leave outside for the winter. When the snow is gone, simply bring the trays inside the greenhouse or set them on a window ledge to make sure they don’t dry out and then stand back and watch them grow! Transplant outside after the last spring frost. Propagation can also be achieved through root cuttings or division.
In the Garden:
Sweet Cicely (Zone 3 – 7) is one of the first herbs to emerge in the spring. It can reach heights of 4-5 feet (120–150 cm) with a spread of 2 feet (60 cm) or more. While it will do great in the sun It is one of the few herbs that also enjoys being in the shade and with its engaging fernlike foliage it is the perfect choice for creating dramatic woodland gardens. The delicate white flowers appear from spring to early summer. In heavy clay this herb is very well behaved, but in well drained, rich, moist, soil it can be invasive. To prevent rampant self seeding be sure to cut off the flowers before they turn to seed or see Culinary Uses below for what to do with the green seeds.
One herbalist recommends pressing bunches of cicely leaves together into a sort of herbal cigar, then wrapping tightly in aluminium foil before popping it in the deep freeze. When you need some sweetener, simply peel back the foil and shave off as much of the frozen herb as you want with a sharp knife. The frozen cigar method also works great for dill, chervil, fennel, parsley, summer savory, tarragon, comfrey, sage and sorrel. Leaves can also be dried and stored in glass jars.
Add a handful of sweet cicely leaves along with some lemon balm to boiling water in which tart fruits such as rhubarb or currants are going to be stewed and you will only need half as much sugar! Leaves can also be chopped up and added to cakes and cookies for the same ratio of sugar reduction. The foliage looks stunning arranged on a cake with violets and roses in the centre – incredible edible decorations! Just before the seeds fully ripen they have a delightful sweet nutty taste. Toss the seeds with abandon into fruit salads, ice cream or pies, but be sure to sample them first to make sure they aren’t too ripe. After ripening the seeds quickly become stringy and unpalatable.
In the days before commercial furniture polish hit the shelves, cicely leaves were used for rubbing down oak panels and floors to make the wood shine and smell good. You can also use the dried leaves as sweet additions to sachets or potpourri.
So there you have it; two sweet choices for your herb patch. You may now resume dancing in the streets or twirling down the garden path, which is probably safer. Less traffic. Just be careful not to trip over my soapbox.
357 Highway 47
The Stevia Cookbook: Cooking With Nature’s Calorie-Free Sweetener by Ray Sahelian, M.D and Donna Gates
Stevia Rebaudiana: Nature’s Sweet Secret by David Richard