STEVIA (Stevia rebaudiana) is a native to Paraguay where it has been used for centuries as an all-natural sweetener. It is just becoming familiar to Americans and Europeans (but some Asian cultures have been using for some time now). The FDA has approved Stevia as a dietary supplement. Its extracts are 200-300 times sweeter than cane sugar! Home growers need to be aware that there is not a lot of established growing information about Stevia. As it comes from a sub-tropical environment, it should be treated as an annual until experience tells you otherwise. (Here in the North Carolina piedmont region it has come back each spring - even spawning babies.) But it is a good container prospect so you can winter indoors with proper acclimation. Happily, light pruning of the plant tips maximizes plant yield and strengthens branches. Wait until the main shoots are 10" long and/or side branches are 9" long before pruning and enjoy your harvest! And in late summer/early fall, take some 5"-6" cuttings to pot up - they will root quite successfully. One live plant in 4" pot ships in Spring at a time conducive to successful growth in your Zone.
MEDICINAL USES: Stevia is a 100% natural, effective and safe alternative to sugar. Use the leaves fresh in teas and coffee (just bruise and add a tiny leaf to your brewing grounds to pre-sweeten). Or make tinctures for other liquid form uses. Can also be dried and ground into a white powder, which is the form you find in health food stores. Use with culinary caution as it is powerfully sweet - 1 teaspoon of Stevia equals 1 cup of cane sugar!
GROWING TIPS: Difficult to start from seed, stevia seedlings can be grown year round indoors with proper care, or harden off when nighttime temps reach 50 degrees and plant outside, spacing 8" apart. Do not over water. You will have the greatest success if you remember this is a tropical plant and requires protection when temperatures dip below 50 degrees. When plant reaches 10", you can begin light pruning to strengthen and make bushier (and use the pruned tips). Pot up to larger pots as growth dictates. Enjoy your natural sweetener!