Enter Stevia - new 'sugar' on the block and it has no calories

Joseph Bulmer

Whilst the media seems to be reporting food shortages on a daily basis running up to Christmas Day the argument to grow your own becomes ever more convincing. It's also a little bit like beating the system where you can, although gardening relates mostly to fruit, flowers and vegetables.

I'm not suggesting you go the whole hog and sell the house for a smallholding and become a permanent episode of The Good Life. What we can do though is research and explore plants that could replace everyday store cupboard essentials.

I was fortunate enough to bump into an old friend this week who was visiting his mum from Chile. He reminded me of a herb I grew in the summer but didn't know exactly how to make it work. It was more of a novelty crop like when I grew lentils without realising the labour involved in harvesting every single lentil from the pod.

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is likely to be taking a greater role in our lives at some point in the future and it is already used as a natural sweetener. It is said that stevia can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. I'm not in any position to confirm this but having tasted it I can verify that it could be in a position to replace sugar if needed any time soon.

I found once that it had germinated like parsnips, it was easy enough to grow as long as kept moist. Stevia is native to Paraguay and has been used to sweeten tea and coffee for centuries. Another attribute is that contains zero calories!

Start them from seed in a sunny spot indoors. In the wild they grow in full sun and usually near a water source. Sow them in late winter in potting compost before watering in to make sure the seeds are touching the soil. If they are kept warm and away from frosts they will grow around a foot tall and quite bushy.

Try and find a balance between keeping them moist and not overwatering. Stevia really do not like ‘wet feet’. Their size will be dictated by the amount of sun and heat they receive, so in a poor summer they will inevitably be smaller.

It’s the leaves that contain the sweetness and can either be chopped directly into cooking or made into a syrup. In South America the syrup is widely available in supermarkets and you can also buy dried leaves that still contain sweetness after drying.

Stevia has just started to go mainstream and I noticed you can buy the seeds from most seed catalogues now. They look like they should be growing on the roadside and are nothing spectacular apart from their jagged edged leaves. They hold an exciting secret in those leaves in that they taste of intense candy floss. If you let them go to flower they will produce tiny white lacy stars in around 10 weeks from sowing.

Whilst I have a seemingly never ending supply of root vegetables throughout the winter months, the most glamorous of those being Jerusalem artichokes, which are not glamorous at all. I'd love to be able to use something a bit more exotic as well as start to plant something from that genre. Stevia fits the bill perfectly and about four plants will give you enough sweetness just in case the shelves become empty of sugar at some point. Let them go to seed and you can have an indefinite supply as long as you are well versed in the simple practice of seed saving.

Being tight, I've still got seeds left over from last year’s packet so will be planting them in our sunny, warm loft a few weeks after Christmas so I can get excited about tasting the first leaves and making out that I'm the gardening version of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.