1 - You can grow stevia in New Mexico during the summer.
Q. I saw some stevia plants at a nursery recently. I know stevia is an artificial sweetener, but did not know it would grow in New Mexico. If I buy a plant, will it grow here?
A. Stevia is not an artificial sweetener, it is an alternative, non-sugar sweetener, but naturally produced by plants. It is different from sugar (based on glycosides rather than glucose), but can be used in some instances to sweeten drinks and even cookies. However, since it is not a sugar, it does not work in exactly the same manner. I talked to Karen Halderson, NMSU Diabetes Coordinator, about stevia. She said that it is safe for diabetics because it does not raise blood sugar levels like sugars do. She has used it for sweetening beverages and for making cookies, but suggests that people who want to grow then use stevia should purchase a cookbook with recipes for stevia. She also suggests that you should realize that experimentation may be necessary to adjust recipes to use stevia since it is actually sweeter than sugar and less will be needed. It also does not caramelize like sugar and that affects cooking properties.
As far as growing the stevia plant, it can be grown outdoors in the summer. The stevia plant is a tropical plant from South America, so it will freeze if outdoors during the New Mexico winter. It does not grow well from seed, but propagates easily from cuttings. When you buy plants, look for plants that have been selected and clonally propagated because of their superior sweetening ability. As you mentioned, the plants are available in some garden centers in New Mexico and also from nurseries on the internet. Do not transplant stevia into your garden until the weather and soil have warmed. Stevia prefers a well-drained soil, so do not overwater the plants. Addition of organic matter to the soil is beneficial. Most authors warn that fertilizers with a high percentage of nitrogen are to be avoided. Organic mulch to help moderate soil temperatures and maintain soil moisture is also beneficial.
Grow them outside in the garden through the summer, and then harvest the leaves to use for sweetening in the fall before they freeze. To harvest, cut the stems from the plants and let the leaves dry. After they have dried, the leaves can be stripped from the stems, crushed, and stored dry for use when needed. This should be a new and interesting crop for many New Mexico gardeners.
Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: email@example.com, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.
For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms.
Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!