Meet Stevia Rebaudiana: The Plant Behind the Hype

stevia rebaudiana

Stevia rebaudiana, the plant behind the popular sweetener

Last week, I was vacationing in Canada when an interesting commercial popped up on the television. It was an ad for the sweetener, stevia, and it featured enthusiastic users growing plants at home. Needless to say, it caught my attention. I had heard that stevia was derived from a ‘natural’ source. But I’d never stopped to consider what that meant from a gardening perspective.

I decided to dig deeper.

STEVIA HAS BEEN AROUND FOR A LONG, LONG TIME

These days, stevia is perhaps best known as an alternative to sugar. But in the botanical world, it is a genus of about 240 species of herbs and shrubs from the sunflower family,  Asteraceae. Among the species, only one exhibits the highest level of sweetness; Stevia rebaudiana. Native to Paraguay and Brazil, the herb has been used for centuries to sweeten tea and food as well as to treat various ailments and diseases.

plantation in Indonesia

A stevia plantation in Indonesia/Photo: shutterstock.com

We have the Paraguayan chemist Ovidio Rebaudi to thank for identifying what makes Stevia rebaudiana so sweet. In 1900, he began studying the plant to determine its constituents. He discovered that stevia rebaudiana’s leaves were packed with compounds called steviol glycosides. And, when extracted and refined, these compounds were 200 times sweeter than processed sugar.

In fact, it took only a small amount of stevia to produce the same level of sweetness as sucrose. And since humans were unable to metabolize steviol glycosides, the extract was not only calorie-free, but also didn’t raise blood sugar levels when digested. 

It’s no wonder the world was jumping on the bandwagon.

IT’S NATURAL, BUT IS IT NATURAL?

Powder and dried leaves of fresh stevia

According to the latest report by IMARC Group, the global stevia market reached a value of more than USD 490 million in 2018 and is projected to reach nearly USD 818 million by 2024. Stevia currently represents an almost 40% share of the total global sugar substitutes market. However, it also has its share of detractors.

Take, for instance, the way in which it’s processed. This is what the website stevia.com says about its processing:

To extract the plant’s sweetness, stevia leaves are harvested, dried and steeped in hot water. They then undergo multiple stages of filtering and centrifuging to concentrate the sweetest components of the leaf. The result is purified stevia leaf extract, ready to be sold commercially.

IMARC global stevia market report

IMARC Global Stevia Market Report

Online, however, there is much disagreement about stevia’s suitability for food. A deeper dive reveals that although stevia leaf extract comes from a natural source (the plant), its leaves are generally processed in a lab with hot water as well as with the chemical compound, ethanol.

Adding to the confusion is that the FDA considers the highly purified form of the plant’s leaves to be Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) – (that is, the steviol glycsoides found in the leaves). But to date, it has not approved whole stevia leaves and crude (non-purified) stevia extracts for use in food due to the lack of generally accepted specifications.

Maybe the herb is best grown and processed at home.

HOW TO GROW AND HARVEST YOUR OWN STEVIA

Ready to follow the people in the ad and grow your own stevia? The sun-loving perennial is listed as hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 11 and up. Like most tropical species, it thrives in hot climates and will die back in a freeze. However, in most areas of the country it can be grown successfully as an annual. 

stevia rebaudiana leaves

Leaves of stevia rebaudiana

In fact, according to Park Seed (one of the oldest seed companies on line), stevia rebaudiana takes well to containers. They recommend planting 3 to 5 plants per pot. Like other herbs, stevia rebaudiana benefits from frequent pruning to prevent lankiness and to encourage branching. Expect it to grow to around 24″ tall.

In early to mid autumn, the herb will produce bunches of tiny, tubular white flowers. But if you’re planning on harvesting fresh leaves, make sure to do so before they’ve opened. Once the flowers blossom, the leaves often adopt a bitter aftertaste.

white flowers of stevia rebaudiana

White flowers of stevia rebaudiana

Stevia growers recommend harvesting fresh leaves in the morning when the plant’s sugar content is highest. You can eat the leaves directly off the plant or dry them and save them in airtight containers. Dried leaves are generally sweeter than fresh ones. And they can be ground in a blender into a granulated powder.

dried stevia leaves

Dried stevia leaves

A note on cold drinks- the leaves must be steeped in hot water to release their sweetness. So use fresh leaves as a sweet, edible garnish instead. 

 

 

Mistletoe: The Poisonous Plant We Love To Hang At Christmas

European or Common mistletoe, Viscum album

For centuries, people have been hanging mistletoe as an expression of love and romance. Unfortunately though, the relationship is one-sided, as the plant doesn’t return the same feelings. Why?  Because mistletoe contains a Christmas cocktail of toxins that when ingested can be harmful to humans and pets. I’d advise keeping it out of reach if you’re planning to make it part of your holiday décor.

WHAT IT IS

For all its romantic associations, mistletoe is no loving plant. In fact, it is parasitic. That means it specializes in attaching to the branches of a tree or shrub and penetrating it to steal water and other nutrients.

And while its deep green, ball-like form adds a touch of ‘life’ to bare branches, once mistletoe gets its roots into a plant it immediately begins to destroy it. This usually requires the removal of all infested limbs and in some cases entire trees in which there are large-scale invasions.

Attractive but parasitic bright green clusters of European mistletoe

IT LIKES TO SPREAD

As if that weren’t bad enough, mistletoe seeds are also easily dispersed. Those pretty white berries that add a festive touch to the sprig? Birds love them. As they’re carried away, the berries’ sticky pulp drops onto the upper branches of shrubs and trees, sowing seeds on other species.

All told, it can take up to two years for a mistletoe to fully develop within a plant. Once firmly rooted, it sends out aerial shoots that typically weaken and distort the host. Sometimes it even kills it.

WHAT HAPPENS IF I EAT MISTLETOE?

There are two main species of mistletoe, Viscum album (European or Common mistletoe) and Phoradendron (American or Oak mistletoe). Both contain a mix of toxic compounds in their stems, leaves and berries that, if ingested, can be harmful to humans and pets.

However, of the two, Viscum album is the more toxic. Its pairs of smooth, oval shaped leaves and clusters of sticky white berries contain a mix of chemicals that include poisonous amounts of the alkaloid tyramine. Tyramine can cause stomach upset, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, blood pressure changes and in rare cases even death.

The oval leaves and white berries of Viscum album

Not to worry (too much), though. In North America, Viscum album is a rarity unless it has been purposely transplanted (California being the exception.) Instead, our own native species, Phoradendron, populates our forests.

American mistletoe has shorter and broader leaves than the European species and larger clusters of white berries. It also secretes a toxin, in this case phoratoxin, that causes the same symptoms as tyramine. But happily, it’s to a lesser extent.

The paddle-shaped leaves of Phoradendron

In fact, although until recently American mistletoe was widely considered to be as poisonous as the European species, downing a few berries is likely to lead to no more than a stomachache. According to the National Capital Poison Center’s recent studies describing American mistletoe exposures (mainly by young children at Christmas), you’d have to eat a whole lot of berries to experience these reactions. The vast majority of patients who ate parts of the plant had no symptoms. Moreover, there were no fatalities, even among those who had swallowed mistletoe on purpose.

POISONING IN DOGS AND CATS

When it comes to pets, small amounts of mistletoe most likely will cause no more than mild gastrointestinal distress. However, if your cat or dog accidentally consumes large amounts of the plant, it could lead to abnormal heart rate, collapse or even seizures. If you suspect your pet has eaten mistletoe, contact your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline for treatment recommendations.

Mistletoe is most harmful to small children and pets/Photo credit: Michael Pettigrew

MISTLETOE AS MEDICINE

Perhaps as a result of its toxicity, Viscum album has been used by herbalists as medicine for centuries. This includes using it to improve circulatory and respiratory problems and to treat a variety of conditions including seizures, hypertension, headaches and arthritis. More recently, mistletoe extract has shown promise in stimulating the immune system in some limited laboratory studies. Today in Europe it is also being used as a cancer treatment.

(Although the United States FDA has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition, it is nonetheless being studied in clinical trials.)

Mistletoe is currently being harvested in Europe for its cancer-fighting properties

THE TAKE-AWAY

Used safely, mistletoe may do a lot more for humankind than just providing a romantic canopy. As we learn more and more about what plants can do, mistletoe’s powerful medicinal qualities are something to celebrate in addition to its decorative properties. Something to think about next time someone reaches in for a kiss under its branches.

 

5 Top Christmas Tree Types: A Guide To Finding Your Perfect Match

Every year is different when it comes to Christmas. But in my home, there is one thing that remains constant. When I shop for a tree, I always head straight for the Fraser firs. These are the trees I grew up with, and their fragrance reminds me of my childhood. And as we all know, memory is a key component in any holiday décor.

Today, the Fraser fir is one of the most popular types of Christmas trees sold. Blessed with good form and upward-pointing branches, it is uniquely suited for heavy ornaments. But for me, its greatest asset is its smell. An intoxicating blend of pine and lemon, it’s the first thing that greets me at the door, instantly boosting my mood during the Christmas season.

4 KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER WHEN SELECTING A TREE

That being said, there is more than one type of Christmas tree available. In fact, there are now over 35 different species being grown, answering to all kinds of tastes and décor. Regardless of which one you choose, though, there are four key things to consider before making a purchase. They are:

Freshness * Needle Retention * Branch Structure * Durability

HOW DO I TELL IF A TREE IS FRESH?

This is the crucial question. Unless you’ve chopped your tree down in the woods, it can be hard to determine a pre-cut tree’s freshness. To that end, the most important indicator is its needle retention. A fresh tree’s needles are pliable, meaning they stay put, even if you pull on them.

Pine needles

Pull on the needles to see if they’re fresh

Another key indicator is the trunk. According to North Carolina State Extension/Christmas Trees, a fresh tree has a sticky one.

cut Christmas tree trunks

Sticky trunks indicate freshness

Ready to try something new? Following are specifics on five popular Christmas tree types and how they fit the above parameters.

FRASER FIR

Native to the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern United States, the Fraser Fir is named after the Scottish botanist John Fraser (1750-1811) who discovered it in the late 18th century. Since that time, growing and harvesting Fraser firs for holiday decoration has become a multimillion-dollar business in southern Appalachia, with North Carolina producing the majority.

Fraser fir

Fraser Fir

One of the most recognizable characteristics of this Christmas tree type are its needles. Short and soft, they are blue-green on the surface and silver below, giving the tree a shimmering quality. The Fraser fir is naturally pyramidal, has excellent needle retention and stays fresh for weeks while emitting a pleasant, forest scent. Sturdy limbs make it perfect for heavy ornaments. And plenty of open space between branches makes decorating easy.

DOUGLAS FIR

It may contain the word fir, but the Douglas fir is actually a member of the pine family. Native to western North America, it is named after David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who discovered it. 

Douglas fir

Douglas Fir

The family connection explains the Douglas fir’s soft green needles, a characteristic of most pine species. Radiating in all directions from the twig like a bottle brush, they emit a sweet fragrance when crushed. Douglas firs are nearly perfectly conical and their branches are spreading to drooping, the perfect holiday shape. You can almost imagine them laden with snow.

COLORADO BLUE SPRUCE

Also known simply as blue spruce, this conical tree with short needles and stiff horizontal branches is the most commonly used Christmas tree type in the Midwest. A nice pyramidal shape and strong limbs make it an excellent choice for decorating.

Blue spruce

Blue Spruce

Lovely bluish-gray foliage give it an added allure and its needle retention is among the best for spruces. But beware — the needles emit a bad odor when crushed. As the popularity of Colorado blue spruces as landscape ornamentals has grown, many consumers now purchase them as ‘living’ Christmas trees to be planted after the holiday season.

BALSAM FIR

Known for its fragrance and near perfect conical shape, the Balsam fir has the distinction of having been chosen for the first National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse by President Calving Coolidge in 1923. Harvested from Vermont, the 48-foot tall specimen was decorated with 2,500 red, white and green electric bulbs. Since then, the types of National Christmas Trees have varied, with this year’s 30-foot tall blue spruce hailing from the state of Pennsylvania.

Balsam fir

Balsam firs are generally found in the northeastern United States and eastern and central Canada. Aside from their distinctive provenance, what makes them so attractive are their short, flat, dark green needles, flexible branches, and slender pyramidal shape (including a spire-like tip perfectly suited for an angel or Christmas star). 

SCOTCH PINE

Native to northern Europe and northern Asia from Scotland to Siberia, the Scotch pine today is the most widely planted tree in the United States. 

Scotch pine

Scotch pine

Also known as Scots pine (in reference to its Scottish roots), its blue-green needles have a distinctive twisted shape, turning 360° as they leave the twig. As an added bonus, the tree rarely sheds its needles. 

Scotch pines can be tough on the hands while decorating, however, as needles can be sharp as pins. I recommend wearing gloves when hanging your ornaments. 

 

Feed The Birds: 10 Plants With Great Winter Seedheads

Once flowers dry up in the vase, we tend to throw them in the garbage. But outdoors, it’s a whole different story. Not only do the seedheads of spent flowers bring beauty to the garden, but they also furnish food to hungry birds and wildlife. And those two reasons alone should cause us to think twice before we start cutting our plants back for the winter.

SEEDHEADS ADD STRUCTURE TO A WINTER GARDEN

When left standing, dried flower stalks and stems can be every bit as striking as bare trees or the skeletons of leafless shrubs. Just like a sepia photo, the soft brown tint of many dried plants brings a warmth and intensity to the winter garden. (They also look great in dried arrangements.) 

Looking for winter interest? It doesn’t have to be all about evergreens. Take a second look at these faded beauties and see them for their sculptural forms. They’ll add structure to your cold-weather garden.

BIRDS LOVE THEM

That being said, the most important reason to leave some plants standing is for their seedheads. During the cold winter months, the dried flowers of many summer and fall-blooming plants are important food sources for many insects, birds and wildlife. Small birds like chickadees and goldfinches often perch right on the seedhead, while larger birds forage for seeds on the ground. And many birds that eat insects during the summer switch to seeds in the winter once these resources are no longer available.

Not surprisingly, sunflower seeds rank high among most seed-eating birds, including cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches and red-bellied woodpeckers to name just a few. American goldfinches in particular also gravitate towards smaller composite flowers like asters and coreopsis. And for most birds, the dried inflorescences of ornamental grasses furnish essential food while the plants themselves provide great wildlife habitats.

rabbit sheltering in dried grass

A rabbit sheltering in dried grass/Photo: shutterstock

Winter is a harsh season for many animals as natural food sources become scarce. Waiting to cut dried plants down directly benefits your local wildlife.

10 PLANTS WITH BEAUTIFUL SEEDHEADS

Of course, you should still prune those plants whose stems collapse or decay. But when it come to the sturdier plants, like the ones listed below, let them remain upright in the garden during the winter. You’ll be rewarded with a flurry of wildlife activity. Chop these plants down in the early spring when new growth starts to appear.

burdock

The beautiful seedheads of burdock/Photo: shutterstock

ECHINACEA (CONEFLOWER)

Denuded of its purple/pink petals, echinacea’s (coneflower) magnificent pyramidal cone is hard to ignore. Blue jays, cardinals and goldfinches all enjoy eating its seeds. The larger the group, the better. 

Echinacea seedhead

RUDBECKIA (BLACK-EYED SUSAN)

Late to the scene, rudbeckias (Black-eyed Susans) add a welcome blast of color to the late-summer garden. And some would say that their distinctive black seedheads are every bit as beautiful as their flowers. Like coneflowers, these sturdy plants will remain standing for much of the winter. And goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees and towhees all enjoy feasting on their tiny dark cones.

Black-eyed Susans are veritable bird-feeders

JOE PYE WEED

Joe Pye Weed is as happy growing on the roadside as it is in the garden. In the summer, its mauve blooms are covered with pollinators. Once its flowers have faded, the seedheads also provide seeds to chickadees, wrens and titmice as well as the fluff to build their winter nests.

American goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed

Goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed/Photo: shutterstock

SCABIOSA (PINCUSHION FLOWER)

Scabiosa columnaria’s distinctive prickly round seedhead leaves no doubt as to how it acquired its common name, pincushion flower. Birds eat its ripe seeds in the fall.

scabiosa seedhead

Scabiosa seedhead/Photo: shutterstock

ORNAMENTAL GRASSES

During the winter, many native birds like sparrows and finches forage for seeds from ornamental grasses, just as they do in the wild. The plants’ brown flowerheads furnish seeds throughout the winter. And their dense foliage provides great shelter. 

snow on ornamental grass

Dried flowers of ornamental grass/Photo: shutterstock

SEDUM

Almost more beautiful in autumn than in summer, sedum’s flat, brick-red flower clusters last well into the winter. During the hot weather months, they’re covered with pollinators. But in the winter, upright varieties like ‘Autumn Joy’ provide an abundance of food to finches, chickadees and other seed-eating birds. 

dried flowerheads of sedum

Dried flowerheads of Sedum/Photo: shutterstock

COREOPSIS

In the summer, this cheerful plant with nectar-rich blooms is a magnet for pollinators, including hummingbirds. And in the fall and early winter, its dried flowers provide food for sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and other seed-eating birds.

coreopsis seedhead

Coreopsis seedheads/Photo: shutterstock

EVENING PRIMROSE

As its name implies, evening primrose is known for its flowers that open at night and generally close in late morning. Its stiff seed pods have four chambers, each of which contains 300+ reddish brown seeds. Produced in September, the seeds are favorites of wildlife and goldfinches, in particular.

evening primrose

Evening Primrose

MULLEIN (VERBASCUM)

This silver, velvety leaved plant with tall yellow flowers often appears unannounced in the garden. Originally from Europe, it has naturalized all over the world. Since its large rosettes survive the cold weather, mullein makes a great home for overwintering insects like ladybugs. Its seeds are also eaten by many birds.

Mullein growing wild in a field

 

A Beginner’s Guide To The Different Types Of Daffodils

Next week, I’ll be planting my daffodils in what has become for me an annual tradition. Why, you may ask, since they multiply so quickly? Well nowadays, daffodils come in an astonishing array of colors, shapes and sizes. So each year, I add a few more varieties to my garden, while savoring the list of further possibilities. Continue reading

Drink To Your Health With These 10 Best Medicinal Teas

cover 3

Now that temperatures are dropping and we’re spending more time indoors, almost nothing beats a cup of freshly brewed hot tea. And aside from the warm and cozy feeling a steaming mug evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many ‘true’ and herbal teas are packed with powerful antioxidants and other substances that are great for human health. So before reaching for a pill, why not explore the benefits of medicinal tea? Continue reading

How To Build The Perfect Monarch Butterfly Garden

monarch on pink flowers

Daniel Potter freely admits he’s not an expert on monarchs. But as a professor of Entomology at the University of Kentucky, he and his grad students sure love to run experiments. Recently, they completed a 2-year study on the likes and dislikes of the popular orange and black butterfly. Now for the first time ever, there’s a roadmap for building the perfect monarch garden. Continue reading

Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage and rosette but is also one of just a few species that thrives in cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter. I can’t think of a better choice for fall gardens and containers. Continue reading

Lespedeza: The Best Fall-Flowering Shrub You’ve Never Heard Of

lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since. Continue reading

The Late-Summer Delights Of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

sedum autumn joy in the garden

Are you on the hunt for a dependable plant for your late-summer garden? Look no further than sedum ‘Autumn Joy.’ Come August, its lovely clusters of tiny flowers are just starting to adopt a rosy-pink hue. And best of all, the blooms keep going for weeks, gradually turning a dusty red that’s the perfect compliment to fall. Continue reading