Saturday, August 27, 2011
Some plants seem to come in and out of favor, becoming old-fashioned only to be rediscovered. One such plant is the Sempervivum tectorum or by its common names either houseleek, or hens and chicks. They used to be present in everyone's garden and many remain in tribute to their hardiness as their name suggests: semper meaning always and vivum live.
The species name tectorum comes from 'of the roof,' for they have grown on tile roofs of houses for over 2,000 years in their native regions of southern Europe. It was claimed Zeus gave man houseleeks to protect his home against lighting and fire, and that centuries later Charlemagne in his conviction of that belief, ordered it grown on every roof. Don't know this for certain, perhaps they're just legends.
Sempervivum are listed in one of my herbals. The leaves have an astringent quality and the inner juice rubbed on irritated skin can relieve burns, insect bites and other itches. Their taste doesn't recommend them for any culinary purpose, and there is no proven method of preserving them.
For many years they have languished, overlooked in neglected garden nooks and crannies while newer more exciting plants took the spotlight. A few years ago they became very popular for use in 'living wreaths,' but are more commonly grown in almost any type of container from worn out shoes to elegant urns. Their interest as garden plants rekindled as gardeners sought plants with easy upkeep. Sempervivum certainly provides that, along with a unique form that provides a geometrical dimension and a fine soft blue-green color that makes them a stand out among dozens of leafy mounding type groundcovers.
The flat rosettes of overlapping thick, fleshy leaves seem architectural in arrangement, and the abundant offshoots (the chicks) easily root providing many new plants. Given time a hens and chicks plant will form a low mat in even extremely difficult garden locations. A relative of Sedum, Sempervivum like fast draining soils, full sun or partial shade, survive drought and neglect, and succeed just about everywhere except boggy soil.
These evergreen succulents come from the Alps and Pyrenees mountains in Europe and are hardy to zone four. The flowers are more interesting than beautiful, notable for growing long rope-like stems covered in scale leaves and hold their small flowers in thready, coarse bunches. After flowering the rosette dies, so don't feel bad about pulling it out and giving the chicks a chance to grow on.
Many interesting cultivars are available changing the color spectrum of the plant a little, and more nurseries are carrying Sempervivum, so look for new ones to become available. Other species are not reliably hardy to zone four, but will survive in dish gardens where they can be stored in warmer locations during winter. Sempervivum arachnoideum or the cobweb houseleek is one to try.