Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a perennial, semi-bushy plant which originated in Paraguay. It is robust in nature and is tolerant to a range of climatic and soil conditions. For its growth, the temperature should ideally be between 15°C and30°C, and the pH range between 6.5 and 7.9. It grows to a height of around a meter and bears white flowers. Cultivated stevia needs regular irrigation and fertilization. The leaves of stevia produce an extract called stevioside, which contains crystalline diterpens glycosides. Stevioside is a non-caloric, non-fermentable, non-discoloring natural sweetener. It is more than 200 times sweeter than sucrose. The leaves are ready for collection about 4 months after transplanting. The quantity and quality of stevioside is best just prior to flowering. In addition, the leaves have been tested to contain Vitamin C, beta carotine and fiber. Once the plant matures, the leaves can be plucked every month. Stevia is prescribed in diets tailored for diabetics and over-weight patients. <br/> The plant is best propagated by cuttings which become ready for transplanting in 1% months. Transplantation may be done in mid-May, maintaining row spaces of 50 to 60 cm., thus accommodating around 100,000 plants per hectare. The leaf yields can go up to 3 tons/ha with a stevioside content of about 15%. <br/> Drying, threshing and packaging of stevia leaves render them a long shelf life. The leaves are increasingly used in cooked/baked products, processed foods and beverages. With the US FDA allowing the use of this natural product in the production of processed foods (1995), it is likely that the production and use of this plant will get a boost.
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