Sempervivum is an easy to grow evergreen perennial perfect for xeriscaping, in a mixed perennial border, or grown with other Mediterranean herbs. They are hardy to USDA Zone 6 and bloom all summer long with fragrant musky foliage.
Hens and Chicks have been cultivated as far back as ancient Roman times. Romans grew them in vases in front of their houses and brought them along when they colonized Western Europe. A belief that Hens and Chicks protected against lightning developed from an apparent resemblance of the plants to the god Jupiter. Clean-shaven Romans thought that the plants looked like the bearded god. Former common name “Jupiter’s Beard” alludes to this fact. Later, Emperor Charlemagne ordered houseleeks to be planted on all roofs to prevent fire.
These evergreen succulents provide drought tolerant, low-maintenance color and texture all year. Hens and Chicks are fun to plant in combinations for morning sun locations. Try pairing Sempervivum with ferns for an interesting take on the “urban forest” theme. Alternatively, filling a large bonsai pot with a mixture of hardy cacti and succulents, including Hens and Chicks, makes a stunning addition to sunny outdoor spaces. They are perfect for rock gardens, rock walls, living walls, and are commonly planted in living roofs. In addition, they attract bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects.
Sempervivum bear sweet, star-shaped flowers with eight to sixteen petals. They are usually pink, red, white, or occasionally yellow. Jovibarba, another genus called Hens and Chicks, can be distinguished from Sempervivum by their bell-shaped, pale yellow flowers. It’s exciting to see stalks shoot up that are topped with a cluster of soft flower buds. In fact, the growing flower stalk is called a rooster!
Leaves of Sempervivum can be used in a similar manner to Aloe vera to treat minor burns, insect bites, and skin injuries. Flavonoids in the leaves contribute to their anti-inflammatory properties. Also, the leaves the Common Houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum, can be added to salads for crunch and a cucumber-like flavor.
In addition to the fifty wild species of Sempervivum, there are also thousands of named varieties in cultivation. Because Sempervivum are monocarpic, (each plant grows, flowers, sets seed, then dies), choose a pot with more than one rosette. Each rosette develops from the “mother” plant, and the rosette “pups” will continue to grow and divide after the “mother” rosette dies. Plants in the Sempervivum genus can also reproduce by seed.
Some varieties you can find at Portland Nursery include:
During the growing season, green rosettes with dark purple tips add contrast to a succulent pathway. As the weather cools, the whole rosette darkens to a purplish-bronze for showy fall color.
Grows 6-12” tall by 6-12”.
Sempervivum ‘Green Wheel’
‘Green Wheel’- Apple green leaves form tight rosettes. Light pink flowers in summer.
Grows 4-6” tall by 6-12” wide.
Sempervivum ‘Red Beauty’
‘Red Beauty’- Frosted, gray-green leaves during the growing season. Red tips in winter. Pink flowers in summer.
Grows 4-8” tall by 8-12” wide.
Sempervivum ‘Royal Ruby’
‘Royal Ruby’ Burgundy leaves with gray-green tips. Purple flowers in summer.
Grows 4-8” tall by 8-12” wide.
Sempervivum arachnoideum ‘Cobweb'
S. arachnoideum ‘Cobweb’-Small green rosettes with white hairs that look like webbing among the leaves.
Grows 2-4 inches tall by 6-12 inches wide.
Common Name: Houseleek, Hens and Chicks, Liveforever
Origin: From the Iberian Peninsula, east to Iran, and south to the northeastern corner of the Sahara Desert.
Culture: As long as the drainage is good, Sempervivum are happy in average to poor soil, in full sun to part-shade locations. A rocky corner of your yard that gets very hot in summer is a good place for these plants. They also do well in parking strips, amongst the roots of trees. If there are concerns about drainage in the planting location, simply incorporate pumice and organic matter to create the necessary air pockets in the soil. Mulching with lava rock encourages water to drain away from the crown of the plant.
Maintenance: Sempervivum are almost care free. If a rosette blooms and dies, dig out the dead plant and wait for the surrounding rosettes to fill in the hole.
Although these plants are extremely drought tolerant, they will need consistent watering to get them established the first season after they are planted.
Propagation: The easiest way to propagate Hens and Chicks is by dividing into individual rosettes and planting them where you would like that them to take hold.
To grow from seed, sow seeds into 2-inch starter pots by pressing them into the surface of the soil. Moisten soil gently and place pots in a bright, warm location, preferably in a South facing window. Although the temperature needs to stay around 70F, pay attention to the seedlings to make sure they don’t overheat.
If seedlings fail to germinate within four to five weeks, they may need a simulated winter, or stratification. If this this the case, place seeds in a refrigerator for four to five weeks, then place back into a sunny window.
Collecting seeds from your plants to sow later can be an adventurous way to add to your Hens and Chicks collection. Because they easily hybridize, Sempervivums grown from collected from seed are not guaranteed to come true to form. However, you might end up with something new!
Pest and Disease: The most common problem of Hens and Chicks is overwatering. Make sure that their soil dries out before the next watering. If leaves become translucent and discolored (a common sign of overwatering) dig up affected rosettes and let dry out before planting again.
It is possible for Sempervivum to sunburn. If there is a lot of radiant heat and intense sun exposure, mixed plantings can create shade pockets, and, therefore, prevent sunburn in parking-strip-like situations.
Other pests that can bother Hens and Chicks include aphids and mealybugs, deer, rabbits, dogs and cats, moles and voles, slugs, and birds.
Aphids and mealybugs may attack plants that are stressed, either from insufficient light or overwatering. A strong jet of water can dislodge aphids. Neem or insecticidal soap can be used on both aphids and mealybugs. Correcting cultural practices prevents these pests from feasting on your plants in the future.
Deer and rabbits may eat Sempervivum in the spring before other vegetation is available. Dogs, cats, moles, and voles can harm by dislodging new plantings. Established patches shouldn’t be bothered. Alternating between animal-urine-based and plant-based repellants can help in discouraging hungry, digging animals. Bait can keep slug populations down. Alternatively, making your yard friendly for garter snakes can help in slug control. Birds may uproot new plantings, but established plantings shouldn’t be bothered.