Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sweet Miracle

I can't say that I wasn't warned. From seed catalogs to articles on the Internet, the consensus was unanimous. Stevia is hard to grow from seed because the germination rate is low and the survival rate of the seedlings is low as well. Any sensible person would have listened to the chorus of voices that advised buying the plant from companies where someone else had already done the hard work, but when has being sensible been any real fun? And since part of the reason I started gardening was to have access to edibles that weren't readily available in the local market; how could I resist the challenge?

So last year I planted about half the stevia seeds I ordered and waited for them to come up. I waited in vain. After considering all the possibilities, I decided that I had planted the seeds at the wrong depth. So I took half of the remaining seeds and put them on a wet paper towel in a plastic yogurt cup to germinate them. Half of the seeds germinated and I transplanted them to seperate cups hoping that at least one would reach maturity. None of them did. So much of the growing season had passed that I decided to wait until 2011 to try again.

This year I repeated the paper towel germination process with the five seeds I had left. Two of the five germinated and I transplanted the sprouts. One sprout died after about ten days. The other grew very, very slowly.

Finally, when I thought it was big enough, I set it out to harden it off for transplanting. After a couple of weeks I set about transplanting it into a large pot. I carefully slid the root ball out of the small container it had been in and started to lower it into the new pot; but I wasn't careful enough. The root ball shifted, slid off the trowel and dropped a few inches into the bottom of the hole that had been prepared for it. As it fell, I heard a sound reminiscent of a piece of cloth being torn in half. And I was sure that I had damaged the stem or tap root to a point beyond recovery. I completed the transplant anyway and decided to see what would happen.

In the first couple of weeks after transplant, the leaves closest to the base of the plant fell off and I was sure it was dying. I checked every day expecting to soon see a bare, whithered stem. However, the upper leaves of the plant stayed green and intact, although there were hardly any signs of growth. Then one day, I noticed what I thought was a new leaf emerging at the top of the plant. It was so small I wasn't sure that it hadn't been there before. So I watched and waited a few more days. And then, something unexpected happened. The plant was long and slender at that point in time and part of the stem was bent over and touched the soil in the pot. New roots formed where the stem made contact with the potting soil and within a couple of weeks the plant's growth took off. The result of that growth can be seen above.

So why bother to go through all the trouble for a plant that's so difficult to cultivate? Well, the rewards are sweet, literally. There are about 240 plants that are members of the species Stevia. Most are found in Mexico, South America and Central America. Only Stevia rebaudiana is naturally sweet. It contains a substance that is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, yet it has little or no effect on blood glucose. The calorie content is negligible and research performed in India indicates that this same sweetner can also lower blood pressure. This unremarkable looking plant is one of nature's most remarkable creations! Thank goodness it was discovered before we destroyed it and its natural habitat.

It really makes you wonder what treasures we may have plowed under in the wild areas of the world in our mad dash to so called development; the cures to cancer, high colesterol, perhaps even AIDS? Stevia is a reminder that we should tread more lightly on the Earth and look more closely least we miss the bounty that surrounds us.

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