Stevia

Stevia

The herb garden is a place where tradition rules — the same plants having been grown for hundreds of years — so it is surprising how rapidly Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) has earned a place there. When I first started gardening, it was unheard of and only a few years ago I had to buy a plant by mail order. Now it is commonly available in garden centers, where it is sometimes sold under the name Sweet Leaf. This meteoric rise (by the standards of the herb garden) has come about because it has a unique and intensely sweet flavor unlike any other common plant. This sweetness is due to several chemicals (mainly stevioside and rebaudioside) which are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, but don’t contain any calories.

This South American herb is a tender perennial and my garden in zone 9 is close to its limit for cold hardiness. Plants usually survive the winter here, though a particularly cold winter would probably kill it off. In colder climates it can be brought inside for the winter and will survive as a houseplant if kept in a sunny place. You might also leave it outside until it dies back and then put it in a cool garage where it will stay dormant for the winter.

Stevia can be grown from seed and is sometimes grown as an annual, but superior strains must be propagated vegetatively. It can be grown from cuttings fairly easily, but I find it is best to divide the plants in spring when they first start to emerge. These break up into separate plants very easily and grow quite rapidly.

This is a tropical plant and requires short days to flower, so in northern areas it only flowers late in the year. It often produces seed abundantly, but it is only worth saving seed that is black or dark brown, as lighter colored seed isn’t usually viable.

A Stevia leaf is 300 times sweeter than sugar and can be used as a sweetener in a variety of ways. To use in baking you simply dry the leaves and crush them to a powder. A large tablespoon of powder is equal to a cup of sugar.

Stevia is most often used to sweeten herbal tea. You can add a couple of leaves to a cup, but the sweetness doesn’t seem to come out very well. A better way is to steep a quarter cup of powder in a cup of water for 24 hours. Keep the liquid in the fridge and use as much as needed for tea.

My children roll up a leaf of stevia in a couple of leaves of spearmint to make a natural candy and I have started doing the same thing.

There was once some controversy about the safety of Stevia, with some claiming that various constituents were toxic. As a result it was banned from use as a food additive in the USA and Europe for a long time (though it could be bought as a food supplement). These concerns have now been largely dispelled and it is undoubtedly less toxic than approved artificial sweeteners. It has been suggested that previous bans were promoted by manufacturers of more toxic artificial sweeteners (hard to believe, I know). Now that Coca Cola/Cargill and Pepsi have developed Stevia sweeteners, it has been approved for use. If you Google “Why was Stevia banned” you can read the whole sorry story.

Stevia is now available to add to your garden. You can find it by browsing under Herbs:

Calendula

Calendula

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) are are delightful flowers to having blooming in the garden — they add vibrant color and attract butterflies and bees and other beneficial insects. They are very easy to grow, tolerate poor soil, bloom all summer, and are prolific self-seeders. The seeds germinate easily in sunny locations and bloom within two months. In very hot areas, they grow better as a spring or autumn flower.

Also known as Pot Marigold, they are not the same as annual marigolds, although they are often found planted near each other in decorative gardens. Part of the daisy family Asteraceae, they are native throughout the Mediterranean region, from Northeastern Africa to Iran. The flower petals of the calendula plant have been used for medicinal tinctures and teas since at least the 12th century. Traditionally, calendula has been used to treat stomach upset and ulcers, as well relieve menstrual cramps. Today, calendula is often used topically, to treat wounds such as burns, cuts, and dermatitis.

In fact, applications of calendula ointments may help wounds heal faster, by increasing the amount of blood flow bringing oxygen to the area, helping the body to grow new tissue. Calendula flowers are full of flavonoids, the plant-based antioxidants that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. It is most often applied directly to the skin as a paste made by blending the fresh flowers with warm water, although it is sometimes used as a tea or rinse to soothe sore throats and inflamed mucous membranes. The dried leaves can be used in a tea, to make a tincture using alcohol, or to create aromatic oils.

Aside from the medicinal properties, calendula flowers make a wonderful, colorful addition to salads, and can be used as a substitute for saffron.

To harvest calendula petals, it’s best to pick the mature flowers in the mid-morning, after the dew has dried. A simple way to dry the flowers is to spread them on a sheet or screen and place them in the shade, making sure to stir them several times a day. This will allow the petals dry evenly and slowly. If you have a dehydrator, that will work well too. Store in a air tight jar in a cool, dark location.

We now offer 11 varieties of calendula to add to your garden layout. There’s the lovely creamy yellow and orange Kabloona, and the beautiful, frilly, creamy pink and yellow bi-colored blooms from Pink Sunrise. For more vibrant colors, the bright pinks, oranges, yellow, and bi-colored blooms of Flashback will perk up any garden.  Why not try a couple of different versions?

Echinacea

Echinacea

This unique cone-shaped flower is native to the United States, and makes a great addition to your garden. The plant produces beautiful purple-pink or yellow flowers with bright, pineapple-like capitula in the center. While many know this plant by it’s flower, it’s medicinal properties are highly concentrated in the roots–which are best harvested after the plant finishes blossoming.

Native Americans used Echinacea after observing sick or wounded elk eating the plant. The native peoples did not use it to treat colds, although they did use it for the common cold’s side-effects including coughing, sore throat, and headaches. Now Echinacea is a well-known plant to use when ill. In fact, most tea blends that are marketed to help treat the common cold include Echinacea! Now you can grow your own Echinacea, and use the harvested root to make your own tea!

Cold Prevention Tea

1 cup Spearmint, dried
1/2 cup Lemongrass, dried
1/2 cup Echinacea root, dried

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Store loose tea in an airtight jar or tin.

When ready to make tea, scoop 1 tablespoon into a loose leaf tea cup or pot. Pour just boiled water over and allow to steep for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove strainer an enjoy. Add honey or lemon for extra flavor, and extra prevention for the cold!

Echinacea is now available to add to your garden; you can find it by Browsing under Herbs.

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm (Lamiaceae Melissa officinalis) is actually a member of the mint family, except instead of having a minty flavor, it has lemon-scented leaves. Traditionally, it was valued for its calming properties, and historically has been used to create tinctures for soothing nerves, reducing stress and anxiety, promoting sleep, improving appetite, and easing pain and discomfort from indigestion. It has also been used in several cosmetic applications, and makes a good facial cleanser for oily and acne-prone skin.

But did you know it can also be used to give a lemon flavor to many dishes and drinks. Here’s a simple, delicious, delicately flavored  herbal iced tea recipe, just in time for summer!

Summer Herbal Tea
(Adapted from Theresa Loe)

½ loosely packed cup lemon balm
½ loosely packed cup of mint
2 tsp Lavender flowers, dried or fresh
2 peels of orange, 3” long each
1 quart of water

Bring water to a boil, and pour over herbs and peel. Allow it to steep for 10 minutes, then strain to serve. Allow tea to cool and serve over ice for a refreshing treat.