May 18, 2020
Houseleek. Hen-widdies. Sempervivum. Whatever you call them, these succulents are a rock garden staple. Nestled in gravel, hens and chicks add vibrant color and texture. They’re hardy, easy to grow, and most important, really dang cute. Let’s get to know them.
Sempervivum are native to southern Europe and northern Africa. Europeans would actually use these plants as a way to fire-proof their homes. Homeowners believed that planting Sempervivum on their roof would decrease the likelihood of fire via lightning. This is reflected in their full scientific name, Sempervivum tectorum; the former is translated as “evergreen,” while the latter means “always living on roofs.” Fire resistance hasn’t been scientifically tested. However, like all succulents, these plants do store plenty of water in their leaves.
The common name “hens and chicks” comes from this plant’s appearance. Larger rosettes spawn additional, smaller rosettes around them, an apt analogy of a mother hen and her darling chicks. As the “chicks” mature, they will create their own rosettes, effectively becoming a hen themselves. Once a mother plant flowers (normally in late July), she will pass away, leaving her chicks to continue her lineage.
Sempervivum are known for their hardiness. While they prefer rocky terrain, they also can grow in regular garden soil. This makes Sempervivum an excellent candidate for not just rock gardens but terrariums and planters, too. Sempervivum are hardy in Wisconsin, going dormant during our cold winters.
To ensure Sempervivum thrive, they need good drainage. Like any succulent, excess water can lead to rotten leaves and death. Ideally, plant Sempervivum in cacti or succulent soil mix, which contains larger amounts of sand, gravel, and perlite or pumice, which allows the soil to drain easily and quickly. It’s fine to put Sempervivum in regular garden soil or in a standard potting mix, but make sure you’re only watering when the soil is dry. Adding grit or sand to regular soil is an easy way to modify your growing conditions to help ensure success.
If you want to add Sempervivum to your collection, they can be found at most nurseries and garden centers and dozens of Sempervivum call our Rock Garden home.
This week’s Plant Profile was written by Tori Lopez, the 2019-20 Horticulture Apprentice with Allen Centennial Garden.
Tori is a recent graduate of UW-Madison with a BS in Life Sciences Communications. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, frequent visits to local public gardens sparked Tori’s interest in our natural world. She is excited to return to the Garden as this year’s Horticulture Apprentice and will continue to focus on the Rock Garden, following an internship in this space last summer. Outside of work she enjoys playing soccer, writing, and beating her friends at Scrabble.
This year’s apprenticeship is funded through generous support from Warren “Buck” Gabelman.