What gardener can resist a bed or bowl of “hens and chicks?” They have to be the most charming and unassuming plants in the garden, yet because they’re so common and easy to grow, they are often overlooked for the showier plants vying for the onlooker’s attention.
Scientifically termed Sempervivum, (semper = always, vivum = living), hens and chicks are native to the mountains of Europe and the Greek Islands and have been cultivated for centuries. Their multiple common names hint at their characteristics and usefulness throughout the ages: Houseleek, hen-and-chickens (or hen-widdies in the American South), Jupiter’s Eye (or Beard), Aaron’s Rod, and many more.
Garden Design magazine gave them the moniker, “Always green on the roof.” Deemed “Thor’s Helpers” in Scandinavian countries, the plants were grown on roofs to guard homes from evil.
Regarded as an herb of protection, luck, love and sexual prowess, in Dorset it was common practice to grow “Welcome Husband” by the front door so it would be the first thing a man would see when he returned.
According to the DTL Herbs’ blog, hens and chicks have medicinal properties like those of aloe vera, although in weaker concentration, and the juice is harder to extract. Freshly pressed leaves and their juice may be used externally to soothe skin conditions including burns, wounds, insect bites, inflammations, hemorrhoids, eczema and fungal infections, as well as itchy and burning parts of the skin. Folklore also says they will remove warts and corns.
Hens and chicks take between three to five years to reach maturity. During that time, the mother plant, (the hen) will “hatch” several identical, small plants (the chicks) that root and grow beside her.
Because “she” is monocarpic, she will die after blooming, making room for her “chicks” to grow and reach maturity, continuing the cycle.
Their leaves sport a wide range of colors, from silver-blues to the darkest of purples, bright yellows, oranges and reds. Most of the plants show their best color in the winter and spring, morphing to green in summer before taking on the bright colors again in reaction to fall’s cooler weather.
Sempervivum arachnoideum and Sempervivum pittoni are “hairy types” and may rot from snow, so it’s best to grow them in pots that can be moved.
Sempervivum arachnoideum or “cobweb houseleek,” is a smaller variety with very tight rosettes and interesting “cobwebbed” foliage.