Garden Club of Oak Park & River Forest
Stevia:  Sweetness and Light

Stevia: Sweetness and Light

Stevia rebaudianaMy latest herb discovery is stevia rebaudiana—aka Sugar Leaf—a member of the chrysanthemum family. On a recent tour of the Chicago Botanic Gardens, the docent encouraged us to taste a small bit of leaf from the stevia plant. She told us stevia is considered to be 200-300 times sweeter than sugar by volume. I concur; a small amount of leaf was very sweet. I began to think about using stevia leaves as an herbal, calorie- and carb-free, sweetener for tea, which is how, in the process of buying the stevia plant, I also bought several herbs to make tea; or more correctly an infusion, as tea is made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Basically an infusion consists of the leaves and maybe some flowers from an herb plant put into boiling water and allowed to steep until the beverage reaches the desired strength. (Some recipes call for fresh leaves and flowers; others specify dried. I have not yet achieved the perfect cuppa tea recipe.)

But I digress. Back to the discussion of eliminating sugar: According to, “Stevia cannot be absorbed by the intestines and has no calories, and it has a glycemic index of zero.  Foods with a high glycemic index cause your blood sugar to rise. Sugar has a glycemic index of approximately 58, while honey ranges from 30 to 58 depending on its composition.” Oregon Health and Science University explains: “Eating foods with a lower glycemic index can help prevent or treat diabetes, so if you are concerned about blood glucose levels, stevia is the best sweetener and honey may be slightly better than sugar.” Honey contains vitamins and minerals, which makes it more nutritious than table sugar. Stevia is nonnutritive, which means it contains no vitamins or minerals.

Pure stevia has been used as a sweetener in its native Paraguay for centuries, but discovery of its sweetness is attributed to Dr. Moises S. Bertoni, an Italian/Swiss botanist, in 1901. The sweetness of the Stevia plant comes from constituents of its leaves called steviol glycosides.  There are at least ten known steviol glycosides of which stevioside and Rebaudiaside A (Reb A) are most prevalent.  Japan began to commercially produce a sweetener in 1971 comprised of steviol glycosides. There was a big anti-stevia campaign at one time (rumored to be anonymously started by agri-business) and the FDA banned its use as a sweetener for about twenty years. Then in 1991 the FDA designated the highly refined product as “Generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use for human consumption.  Shortly after that Coca Cola/Cargill came out with Truvia and Pepsi/Whole Earth Sweetener Company brought out their new PureVia brand of sweetener. Positive safety opinions from health organizations from around the world are opening up new markets for the use of steviol glycosides in food products.

Stevia rebaudiana is an annual in areas with freezing temperatures but can be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill. It is recommended to start with a plant or cuttings rather than with seeds to get the best quality plant. After the last frost, once temperatures are in the sixties, the plant can go into well-draining, compost-rich soil in a sunny location or a soilless mix if in a pot. If necessary, fertilize lightly with a low nitrogen fertilizer. Water enough to keep the plant from wilting but avoid overwatering as it reduces stevoside content. Plants mature in around three months and reach 2.5 feet tall and a spread of 2 feet. Stevia can be grown as a companion plant with flowers or vegetables and purportedly repels grasshoppers and aphids. Harvesting the stevia leaves late in the season, just before flowering, will provide leaves with the greatest sweetness. (Obviously the sweetness of stevia leaves is not as concentrated as commercial sweeteners.)

I have only used stevia in tea but some people recommend the leaves in a salad. I like the sweetness and the slightly licorice aftertaste of the leaf, I like the no calories, no sugar, and fresh from the garden aspects of stevia. But I will not be pursuing recipes with this plant. I tried stevia on four occasions by itself and in tea and developed intense itching and hives! Like all herbal supplements, moderate use is recommended, and be aware that you may be ingesting stevia in commercial products. A few warnings regarding stevia: Pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid the use of stevia until further testing is done. Anyone allergic to ragweed, daisies, marigolds, or anything from the chrysanthemum family may have a reaction. Those wanting to use stevia medicinally to lower their blood pressure or blood sugar should consult their doctor.

Perennial Serendipity

Perennial Serendipity

 The Garden Club’s July road trip took us a short distance north of Lake Geneva to Northwind Perennial Farm, a former dairy farm purchased by three friends twenty-three years ago. Sharilyn Smage, our tour guide/floral arranger, described the three owners:  Roy Dibik the philosopher/plant man/author known for his low-maintenance style of gardens; Steve Coster responsible for the unique wood plants, for master pruning, and for creating the hardscape on site—including a huge stone pyramid; Coleen Garrigan the antique guru responsible for the merchandising barn. (Some of the antiques Coleen featured are just to be admired, as Norma found out when she asked about purchasing an urn with a beautiful patina. Sorry, not for sale).Steve's stone pyramid


.The business grew utilizing the strengths of each person, and like the three friends that have harmoniously grown the business, their demonstration gardens have evolved into a kindred community with similar needs but a vastly different vision.  As the gardens were originally designed and planted, Roy did what most of us did twenty years ago:  piled on the mushroom mulch, rototilled or turned the soil over and planted his favorite flowers, fertilized them to death, and lastly, added a couple of inches of wood chips. (Oh yes, plus the belief that most bugs were evil and had to be destroyed with pesticides.)  Today he uses a couple of inches of locally composted leaf mulch around each new plant.   The following spring around March, he cuts down (or mower mulches) the plant material and lays it around the plants to provide their own organic matter.  A large drift of early spring bulbs are planted to come up and cover the debris, and then the new plants cover the bulb’s decaying leaves.  A little hoeing every couple of weeks in the spring eliminates most of the weeds. If that approach is too wild looking for your taste, remove the cuttings and use composted leaf mulch in lieu of wood chips.  According to Roy, wood chips cause weeds to flourish and new varieties of weeds to enter your garden.

But that is another story.

After growing more than half a million plants, Roy has narrowed his scope to approximately 300 varieties of regionally sustainable plants.  We have heard the dictum “Right plant, right place.” Roy’s philosophy about a low-maintenance garden can be summed up in his “know”-maintenance garden: know your plants needs for light, soil, and water and plant compatible plants close to each other.  A little knowledge about the plant’s growth habits helps to develop a beautiful intermingled garden with little open space for weeds to grow. One example I recall hearing about is a spreading blue star Amsonia paired with the vertical clump-forming grass Sesleria. (The plant botanical names were flying out of Sharilyn’s mouth faster than I could record them and how they were combined in this garden.  We will need to study the pictures.)  I will say I recognized an abundant variety of alliums, asters, campanula (bellflower) coreopsis, Echinacea (coneflower), geranium, hemerocallis, nepeta (catmint) and salvia, to name a few. It was the variety of these plants combined with grasses that played up their textures and colors that were so lovely to see.  We would frequently do a 360˚ turn to appreciate the light and color from all viewpoints. For shade areas they were utilizing hardy Carex, a sedge that comes in a variety of shapes, textures, and heights.  With sedge, we no longer have to rely on hostas to do all the work in the shade.

Common milkweek and Giant hog fennel

Dibik’s gardens are informal and rather like a display of family pictures highlighting the best of each participant and appreciated in all seasons. Out buildings on the farm are left unadorned and used as they are needed. In front of the “Swallow’s nest” building that had recently been used for assembling bridal bouquets were the largest flowering common milkweed I have ever seen accompanied by a  relocated, self-seeded Giant Hog Fennel (Peucedanum Verticillare).  The original seeds had been given to Roy by Piet Oudolf (Lurie Garden designer from the Netherlands), and broadcast in another area of the farm.  The Giant Hog Fennel was thriving here so no need to remove it.  The gardens looked like they had been there forever untouched by human hands, although that is not the case.  Occasionally they get the attention they need; a little thinning, weeding, water, whatever is necessary to keep the balance. If Mother Nature contributes another pleasing design, so be it. Gardening is a symbiotic relationship.

The Return of the Red Head

The Return of the Red Head


I recently made the acquaintance of an old friend of Garden Club OPRF. I have really enjoyed getting to know more about the history of this peppery, Peruvian red head.  Her relatives are quite famous and—forgive the name dropping—have been seen along the garden walks at Monet’s Giverny gardens  and in paintings such as the “Dance” by Matisse. Their formal name, Tropaeolum majus was given to them by Carl Linnaeus, the botanist, in reference to an ancient custom: After a victorious battle, the Romans would hang the shields and helmets of the vanquished on a trophy pole called a tropaeum.  Linnaeus was reminded of the shield and bloody helmets by the round leaves and the red flowers on the plant we know as Nasturtium.

The first Tropaeolum species was imported from Peru into Spain by the Spanish botanist Nicolas Monardes in the 16th century. In 1569 Monardes published Joyful News out of the Newe Founde Worlde wherein he described the plants and animals discovered in South America. In 1597 the English herbalist, John Gerard, wrote that he received the seeds in Europe and called the plant “Indian Cresses.”  The Americas were known as the Indies at this time and the plant leaves were used as a salad ingredient.

Thank you Marilyn Moore for letting me photograph your garden!
Thank you Marilyn Moore for letting me photograph your garden!

The herbaceous Nasturtiums are valued as ornamentals, food, companion plants (for garden pest control), herbal teas, medicines, and ingredients in such things as cosmetics and varnish. Herbaceous plants, also known as herbs, are plants whose leaves and stems die down to the ground at the end of the growing season. An herbaceous plant can be an annual, biennial or perennial. An herb is a seed producing plant with edible leaves and flowers.  A spice on the other hand, is a mixture of dried berries, fruits and barks used for flavoring of food. All of the Nasturtium’s above ground parts are edible. There are many recipes utilizing the leaves and flowers but even the seeds have been used as substitutes for capers and pepper.

In addition to its place in cuisine, herbal medicine, botany, and horticulture, the Nasturtium holds a place in the history of optics. Das Elisabeth Linné-Phänomen, or the Elizabeth Linnæus Phenomenon, is the name given to the phenomenon of “Flashing Flowers. Especially at dusk, the orange flowers may appear to emit small “flashes.” Once believed to be an electrical phenomenon, it is today thought to be an optical reaction in the human eye caused by the contrast between the orange flowers and the surrounding green leaves. The phenomenon is named after Elisabeth Christina von Linné, one of Carl Linnaeus’s daughters, who discovered it at age 19.

I am told that in 1942 Oak Park school children voted the Nasturtium their favorite flower. It is easy to understand why.  Nasturtiums have large seeds easily handled by children for planting directly into the ground.  A nasturtium is an annual plant in the USDA hardiness zones 3-10 but can be a perennial in climates that don’t have freezing temperatures.  Nasturtiums are easy to grow and thrive in full sun and well-draining soil and when watered about once a week. The lovely flowers range in color from bright red, orange, and yellow to a soft cream color. The flowers can be used as a decoration or eaten in a salad (as long as no pesticides have been used on them). The flowers and leaves should be gently washed and dried before using.

Nasturtium by Bobbie Raymond LarsonIn 1997 club member Bobbie Raymond Larson designed our club logo using the Nasturtium. Come the September Friendship meeting, look for a reappearance of this design on the new membership guide.

June 17 Field Trip:  Batavia Wildflower Sanctuary

June 17 Field Trip: Batavia Wildflower Sanctuary

About 10 members and guests of the Garden Club recently visited the Wildflower Sanctuary on the Batavia Riverwalk. The Wildflower project began in 1991 during the development of the River Walk in Batavia. As in many other towns, the local residents sought to preserve the area along the Fox River from both unwanted private development and decay. Some of the new river walk features restaurants and public buildings, in addition to a very interesting collection of windmills.


The area adjacent to the river but north of the “cut”, a bridged stream flowing into the Fox River, was saved from development but contained an impassable, tangled mess of weeds, mostly buckthorn, a notorious non-native pest. With the cooperation of the Park District, some local community volunteers, including Nancy and Ed Weiss, got together to form the “Plain Dirt Gardeners” who helped weed out the buckthorn and renovate the large area into a meandering, attractive walk in a park-like setting along the river.  In place of the weeds, the volunteers planted beneficial native species.   Early on, Kane County Environmental Director Dick Young lent his assistance in this project.   Dick’s book:   Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas was, and still is, the primary reference in plant selection and retention. Today the Wildflower Sanctuary is a relaxing and beautiful walk featuring four different habitats, each with its own species of plants.

Fox River at Batavia River Walk
Fox River at Batavia River Walk

Our venerable tour guide was Nancy Weiss, who has been with the sanctuary from its inception. She was assisted by her husband, Ed, who herded us stragglers from the parking lot to the courtyard from atop his bike.

Nancy Weiss



The tour included woodland/floodplain, savannah, prairie, and rock shelf habitats.   We each received a checklist of the walk’s native plants and trees, approximately in the order we would encounter them in each of the habitats. Only some of the plants have markers, and the natives do tend to move around a bit. So it was helpful to have a written list; but most delightful were the guides’ personal descriptions of their experiences with the plants and their habits, typical of any conversation with a fellow gardener: (“Oh, this one is kind of a pest and we have to keep it controlled. That one just finished blooming and it was so pretty…”)

Photo by Linda Z.
Tour guide Ed Weiss with Garden Club members Marilyn and Lisa.



Elaine Allen and John Richter
Elaine Allen and John Richter

After the tour we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the nearby Apple Villa.  Some of the members finished the day with a visit to Hostas in the Garden with John Richter in Warrenville.




Thanks again to our Field Trip committee, Elaine Allen and Marilyn Brumund, for arranging a wonderful day.  ( Photos by Elaine Allen and Linda Zwierz)

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