Hens And Chicks

A Guide To Growing Hens And Chicks – Sempervivum tectorum

The Complete Growing Hens And Chicks Guide

Welcome to the Farmer Jer’s Complete Growing Hens and Chicks guide.  This guide to growing Devil’s beard is all you’ll need to get a handle on your houseleeks.  I’ve always loved adding these to my garden, they look so weird and alien-like. In this article I’ll discuss growing techniques, soil and lighting requirements, history and uses for the plant and more.  Let’s dive right into Thor’s Beard (that sounds weird, doesn’t it).

Name(s) of Plant

Hens and Chicks, Houseleeks, Liveforever, Thor’s Beard, Devil’s Beard

Type of Plant

Groundcover Succulent

Kingdom

Plantae

Order

Saxifragales

Family

Stonecrop family, Orpine family, Crassulaceae 

This family of plants is characterized by having water-storing, thick leaves.  Better known as succulents, this process of storing water is an evolutionary mechanism to cope with a harsh environment where water is often scarce.  Therefore, it indicates that a lower level of watering is required for this family of plants.

Genus

Sempervivum

Sempervivum translates into ‘live forever’ or literally “always/forever alive”.  The genus includes about 40 species.  

Species/Variations

There are, as mentioned, about 40 species within the genus.  For the purpose of clarification, this article focuses on the common species, the Sempervivum tectorum.

Here are a few of the species in the Sempervivum genus:


Sempervivumaltum
Sempervivumarachnoideum
Sempervivumarmenum
Sempervivumatlanticum
Sempervivumballsii
Sempervivumborissovae
Sempervivumcalcareum
Sempervivumcantabricum
Sempervivumcaucasicum
Sempervivumciliosum
Sempervivumdavisii
Sempervivumdolomiticum
Sempervivumerythraeum
Sempervivumglabrifolium
Sempervivumingwersenii
Sempervivumjuvanii
Sempervivumkindingeri
Sempervivumkosaninii
Sempervivumleucanthum
Sempervivummacedonicum
Sempervivummarmoreum
Sempervivumminus
Sempervivummontanum
Sempervivumnevadense
Sempervivumoctopodes
Sempervivumossetiense
Sempervivumpittonii
Sempervivumpumilum
Sempervivumsoculense
Sempervivumsosnowskyi
Sempervivumtectorum
Sempervivumthompsonianum
Sempervivumtranscaucasicum
Sempervivumwulfenii
Sempervivumzeleborii

Plant Origin

The plant is originally from Northern Africa and Southern Europe but the species S. tectorum has been introduced into many states and provinces of the United States and Canada.  The plant has been used by humans for hundreds of years. It was even kept by the Romans as a potted plant. They associated the plant with love. Probably due to the phallic like single shoot that rises up from the plant for flowering.

Devil's Beard
By Guérin Nicolas (messages) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4351329

Flower Color

Hens and chicks typically have white to reddish-purple flowers.

Blooming

These plants tend to bloom in mid to late summer.

Description

Sempervivum tectorum
Sempervivum tectorum – By Pamla J. Eisenberg from Anaheim, USA – Sempervivum Tectorum “Greenii,” Huntington Library Desert GardenUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6959190

S. tectorum is a beautiful and strange ground covering succulent.  The plant grows in bunches. Each bunch is round. An almost flower-like ball of thick leaves.  These balls of leaves grow to about 4-6 inches across at full size. The plants ‘spawn’ small versions of themselves, which are commonly called the ‘chicks’.

When the plant is going to bloom, it sends upward a thick segmented stalk that looks almost insect-like.  It reaches upward, usually from 4-8 inches upward (I have one get 12” tall though in my backyard garden).  

The leaves are thick, pale green in color.  There are often reddish hues working their way into the pale green of the leaves.  Depending on the variation, the leaves can even be red to purple.

Basic Information

Hens and chicks are one of my favorite choices for ground-covering.  They work really well to fill the spaces between rocks or even between other plants.  The plant does really well in hot and dry conditions but I live in Southern Ontario and does fine here too.  My houseleeks survived a rather nasty winter and even spread and multiplied.

The basic trick to these plants is to go easy on the watering.  I let the soil dry out completely between watering. I also check the leaves.  After some experience with the plant, you get a feel for how plump the leaf should be for a healthy-looking plant.   Too thin and they aren’t holding enough water. You should NEVER see the withering of the leaves. And if the leaves are too plump, from over-watering, they can rot.  I found that once a week in a well-drained bed to be perfect for these alien-like succulents.

Growing Hens and Chicks – Techniques:

Soil pH

I have had great results with soil mediums which were between 6.8 and 7.8 pH.  Basically, keep it around neutral and you shouldn’t have any issues.

Soil Type

The soil type should be a succulent specific mix.  I’ve found this works best, but these plants will grow in many types of soil, as long as they aren’t over-watered.Light

These plants prefer full sun but will do just fine with a bit of light shade.  

Watering

As mentioned, these plants are succulents.  In the wild, they don’t mind clinging to rocks and crags on mountains where they don’t necessarily get much rain.  That’s why they’ve adapted to store water in their leaves, the succulent way. Well, over water them and they swell and rot.  So, the rule here is don’t water them until their soil is dry. Once a week is usually adequate.

Pests/Diseases

The most usual issue this plant faces is rot due to overwatering.  The plant is relatively hardy.

History

S. tectorum was first described in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.

Growing Hens and Chicks: Plant Uses:

Aesthetic

This plant makes a fantastic ground covering for dry, well-drained beds in mild to hot climates.  Due to its hardy nature, it has made its way into North American gardening and is often used to fill in between rocks and other plants.  Due to the plants’ unusual appearance alongside common perennial flowers, it adds an alien-like appearance to the garden. I’ve grown the plant for several years now and it is quite pleasant to see growing and multiplying in the garden.

Culinary

This plant is not typically used for culinary purposes due to the fact that it can induce vomiting.  I don’t recommend attempting to eat it.  

Medicinal

The ancient Romans used the plant for both external and internal medicine and treatments.  The juice of the plant was often mixed with honey. It was used as a general cure for stomach issues, but too much and it can induce vomiting.  The plant was also used to treat everything from oral yeast infections to inflammation. I’d stick to keeping the plant as a ground cover myself as the value of using this plant medicinally has not yet been shown overly beneficial.

Did You Know That? 

Hens and chicks were once believed to ward off decay, and witchcraft, as well as lightning.  The plant was grown on the roofs of houses to ward against fire and against thunderstorms. It was believed to be a sign of good luck for the occupants of a home.

My Experience With Hens And Chicks

I’ve grown this plant in my garden for a number of years.  I grew it in a rock garden that was on a slope and also at my current house as a filler between lavender and beebalm.  Now, I don’t recommend this combo, it’s what I happen to have to work with.

Both the lavender and the beebalm grow considerably taller than the devil’s beard, but I trim them back and the bed gets full sun.  When I grew the plant between decorative rocks in the sloped rock garden I had, the plant did very well. I don’t think I ever watered it. It just got rain here in Southern Ontario. I found the plant to be good and hardy as long as the soil drains well.  I’ve had it grow both in sandy soil and thick soil with high clay content. It has done just fine in both soil types.

Both places I lived/live where I grew or grow the plant, it has had full sun.  Only this last season was I able to test the amount of sun versus shade that the plant seems to do well in.  I found that at about 50% shade, it doesn’t grow nearly as fast as the one in full sun. There were fewer chicks and a few of them died seemingly right away.  The one in full sun did not appear to have this condition occur.

Bibliography

  1. Crassulaceae – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crassulaceae
  2. Hen and chicks – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hen_and_chicks
  3. Sempervivum tectorum – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sempervivum_tectorum
  4. Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sempervivoideae
  5. Saxifagales – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxifragales
  6. Praeger, Lloyd R. (1932). An Account of the Sempervivum Group. ISBN 978-3-443-50036-8.
  7. United States Department of Agriculture – https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=SETE5
  8. Farmer Jer’s Personal Experience – Jeremy Shantz, Real Life Experience. 2010-2012, 2018-present.
  9. Missouri Botanical Garden – http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=b711

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