Bello Food Gardening with Fi Morgan: Something Sweet Part 2

In this week's edition of Bello Food Gardening, Fi Morgan takes us through the tricks of growing 'something sweet', including sugar cane.

Following on from last week where we looked at some obvious sweet treats (CLICK HERE), today is about other options to consider that might be easier.

Stevia Stevia rebaudiana

Stevia Rebaudiana

A very sweet tasting member of the sunflower family. (1) Dried powdered leaves taste at least 10 to 15 times sweeter than sugar while 2 tablespoons of stevia powder can replace 1 cup of sugar. Just two or three leaves are enough to sweeten a cup of tea or coffee. (2) You get the idea, it tastes sweet! In fact, the fresh leaves taste so sweet that they can be over the top, (3) but they can make a nice little snack with mint leaves while wandering the garden. (4)

Stevia has zero calories, carbohydrates and a zero glycemic index which means it does not affect blood sugar so it’s fine for diabetics. (2,5) Some people find it has a funny aftertaste, while others don’t notice or don’t mind this. My advice is to try some stevia powder from the store before you try growing the plant. When you don’t like it’s aftertaste, you really don’t like it!

Stevia is native to the semi-humid, subtropical climate of Paraguay (1) and prefers an acid soil. (2) Sounds perfect for here, and the growers I found agreed that it did really well. (3,4) It is a perennial plant lasting 3-5 years (1) that will drop its leaves, die down over winter, and reshoot in spring. (6) It will tolerate mild frost, but hard frosts (not an issue here) will kill the root ball. (1) It grows into a bush about a metre high. The leaves are what you are after. For maximum sweetness, pick them just before it begins to flower in late summer or early autumn. The sweetness drops dramatically as flowers form. (7) For best quality and sweetness, dry the leaves quickly but don’t use high heat. (1) This can be as simple as cutting branches and hanging bunches upsidedown, spreading leaves out in the sun on a tray for a day or putting leaves in a paper bag and hanging up somewhere warm for a day until the leaves sound crunchy. (7) Once dried, stevia can be stored in dry conditions for years without losing quality. (1) The leaves are often powdered after drying.

For a good supply of stevia all year, you may need several plants. (7) Seed is difficult to germinate but cuttings strike easily. Take cuttings 10-20cm long over summer. Half bury them in potting mix and keep moist until they have grown roots. (6) Choose a spot to plant out that has plenty of sun though possibly not full scorching afternoon sun here, (3,7) rich and well drained soil, and is regularly watered. Over watering or sodden soil can result in fungal problems and the plant may die. Keeping it evenly watered is noted as essential. Not many insects like it aside from a few caterpillars especially when it’s still quite young. As the plant grows, tip prune it to encourage it to bush out and grow more of those magic leaves. (1)

Liquorice (British English) or Licorice (American English) Glycyrrhiza glabra

Glycyrrhiza glabra

An easy to grow, underused plant. Liquorice does NOT taste strongly of aniseed. Many liquorice treats are flavoured with aniseed, hence the confusion. It’s a super sweet taste with a sweetness effect 30 to 50 times that of sugar. (8) Will you like the flavour? Try a liquorice herbal tea from the store before growing the plant to find out.

The beauty of liquorice sweetness is that is comes with no calories or ability to raise blood sugar, meaning it’s good for diabetics. However too much is not good for you. It’s not good for people with already high blood pressure or low potassium levels (9), those prone to fluid retention, or with heart problems. But dose matters. 10 mg of the active ingredient a day is considered safe. That’s about 5g of liquorice sweet. For comparison, those most sensitive to it begin to notice the adverse effects at about 100mg per day, ten times that amount. Most healthy people can eat up to 400mg GZA, about 200g of liquorice sweets, before being affected. (8) That’s a LOT of liquorice. 

It seems that very few people currently grow liquorice in this area, which is a little odd given how easy it is to grow and how well it seems to do here according to the one grower I did manage to unearth. (4) Liquorice likes full sun in a well drained position, with a bit of mulch. It’s a small bush, 0.9-1.5m in size. There’s no need to be concerned about frost as the plant is dormant in winter and so does not get affected. Once settled, the plants are hardy and will tolerate dry conditions (10) which is good as you don’t want to plant it within several metres of your veg garden because the roots stretch such a long way and the plant sends up suckers from those long roots. 

The root is the part of the plant that is used. It takes 2-3 years to grow to the size of 1-5cm diameter which is worth harvesting. Roots can be harvested at any time of the year (10) though winter when it is dormant is also recommended. (11) The roots are brownish-yellow, straight, long and flexible, with a yellow, juicy interior. (12,13) Dig up the thick lateral roots near the surface, or the whole plant (and replant). (12) Either way, leave the deep taproot and the thinner roots to continue. Be warned that if you don’t harvest, the roots can stretch for up to eight meters! (13)

The hot tip is to plant liquorice on a mound or some sort of raised garden, partly for the drainage they like, but also to make harvesting easier. The root system is very strong, with a taproot and many smaller lateral roots that spread out from the base. (13) The root system may go 2-3.5 m deep but most of the roots are in the top 30 cm (14) so make harvesting easier by having it on a mound at least that high. The other important hot tip is plant it where it can sucker to it’s hearts content, or where those roots can be contained. (11) It makes a good bank stabiliser or erosion control plant because of this strong extensive root system, (15) and as a bonus it’s a legume so it fixes nitrogen for other plants to be able to use. This also means it doesn’t really need fertilising. (12)

As you may guess, root propagation is the most successful way to make new plants. It will regrow from root fragments. Or you can plant 20-30cm root pieces. Winter when it is dormant probably isn’t a good idea as the pieces might rot. Seed propagation is also possible but not as successful. (10,13)

Once you’ve harvested some root, give it a wash. It can then be dried & eaten, or ground into a powder, or placed in water and boiled until the water evaporates making a strong liquorice syrup. 

(16) It can also be used fresh, to chew on (12) or as small slices in cooking. (4) 

Lastly, the easiest and most obvious sweetener is honey. In this area we are lucky enough to get to choose from honey from European bees and native stingless bees (sugarbag honey). Books have been written on looking after bees and so my recommendation is to find a local mentor or join the local beekeeping club if you want to keep them (https://www.beekeepers.asn.au/mid-north-coast) and have a read over the previous article on keeping your garden bee friendly. (add link to ‘for the bees article’)

However sometimes there isn’t surplus honey to take from the bees’ stores. That’s ok, as we’ve seen, we have options!

Supported by:

Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding

Thank you to Eric and Jeff for sharing their hands on experience with growing liquorice.

Notes:

1. Stevia | AgriFutures Australia [Internet]. AgriFutures Australia. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/farm-diversity/stevia/

2. Organic Stevia | Stevia rebaudiana Plant [Internet]. Mudbrick Herb Cottage. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.herbcottage.com.au/products/stevia

3. de Jong E. In a reply to my Facebook post to Bellingen Seed Savers Chatter. 2021. 

4. In conversation with Jeff Alcott on June 2 2021. 

5. Sugar Herb – Stevia rebaudiana [Internet]. Daleys Fruit. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.daleysfruit.com.au/Sugar-Herb-Stevia-rebaudiana.htm

6. Stevia growing information [Internet]. Green Harvest. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://greenharvest.com.au/Plants/Information/Stevia.html

7. LongTimeMother. How I Grow and Harvest Stevia [Internet]. Dengarden. 2019 [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://dengarden.com/gardening/Sweet-secrets-of-Stevia-Tips-for-growing-and-harvesting

8. Liquorice. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Liquorice&oldid=1026277220

9. Does licorice cause high blood pressure? [Internet]. Science Questions with Surprising Answers. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://wtamu.edu/~cbaird/sq/2013/09/03/does-licorice-cause-high-blood-pressure/

10. Organic Licorice | Glycyrrhiza glabra Plant – Mudbrick Herb Cottage [Internet]. Mudbrick Herb Cottage. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.herbcottage.com.au/products/licorice

11. Spanish Licorice | The Diggers Club [Internet]. The Diggers Club. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.diggers.com.au/shop/edibles/spanish-licorice/plic/

12. Hendry AM. Grow Your Own Liquorice for Healthier Treats [Internet]. GrowVeg. 2019 [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.growveg.com.au/guides/grow-your-own-liquorice-for-healthier-treats/

13. Liquorice – How to Grow, Where, Propagation, Harvest & Storage – Smoothie Sailor Australia [Internet]. Smoothie Sailor Australia. 2019 [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://smoothiesailor.com.au/natural-health/liquorice-how-to-grow-where-propagation-harvest-storage/

14. Douglas et al. – 2004 – Effect of plant density and depth of harvest on th.pdf [Internet]. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01140671.2004.9514317

15. Permaculture Plants: Licorice (Liquorice) | Temperate Climate Permaculture [Internet]. Temperate Climate Permaculture. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: http://tcpermaculture.com/site/2014/05/07/permaculture-plants-licorice-liquorice/

16. Liquorice Root seeds | The Seed Collection [Internet]. TheSeedCollection. [cited 2021 Jun 14]. Available from: https://www.theseedcollection.com.au/liquorice-root-plant

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