By Holly VanKeuren
The Latin name for what is commonly referred to as ‘Hens ‘n Chicks’ is Sempervivum, and this name was derived from the custom in Europe of planting these remarkable succulents along the ridges of thatched roofs. This was done to protect the houses from lightning, and the name came from this custom, with Semper standing for ‘always’ or ‘forever’ and with Vivum meaning ‘alive’. They are also known commonly as a Houseleek, yet another named that refers to their use on rooftop plantings. Their third common name, Hens ‘n Chicks is used very widely, and refers to their method of reproducing themselves. The mother hen or more mature plant is surrounded by its miniature offspring, similar to baby chicks around their mother hen. These baby chickens are attached to the mother plant by a thin stem, or umbilical cord, which once severed allows the new plant to grow its own roots and begin its own colony.
There are so many different varieties available today, often with cultivar names that help to describe the variety type such as ‘Cobweb’, ‘Pacific Blue’, and ‘Ruby Heart’ to name just a few. I am amazed at how this succulent continues to remain so popular, as I often remark to our visitors, “They were popular during my great-grandmother’s day and continue to remain popular today.” We doubled our production from our previous year, and have a few types still available for sale at this point in July, but they are going fast. I have to think that part of this plant’s success, other than being so geometrically perfect and beautiful, is the fact that they are easy to grow and very drought tolerant.
Hens ‘n Chicks make a great groundcover, fill planters nicely, and can be wonderful when used in rock gardens along with other succulent type plants. Care is minimal, once planted and established, with little cleaning required other than some lower leaf removed or trimming back of old flower stems. They do very well in full sun locations that have poor, sandy soil, and will also thrive in part-sun conditions. Perhaps the one downside could be that the plant is monocarpic, meaning that once the mother plant has produced a flowerhead, it will then die off, leaving behind its new offspring. New plants are often propagated in this way, but they can also be grown from seed. Keep in mind however that they will readily hybridize, with seed not always keeping true to type. Truly a remarkable perennial, spanning the years of human cultivation and still maintaining a favored place in our hearts and gardens.