BLESSINGS IN BLOOM: Sempervivum: Hens and Chicks
By Kerry Peetz
Hens and chicks are charming and are a very interesting garden plant. They grow extremely well in our diocese, don’t need a lot of water and under the right conditions come back year after year. They remind us of motherhood and little babies and life passing on from one generation to another.
The Latin name for hens and chicks is “Sempervivum tectorum.” They are also known as Houseleeks, Live-Forevers and Semps. The Latin word “Sempervivum” means “always living” and the Latin word “tectorum” means “on roofs.” The translation then means “always living on roofs.” Huh? Well, this is said to come from early Europe when hens and chicks were originally planted on rooftops to help reduce fires caused by lightning on thatch roofed homes. This succulent was considered to be able to slow down fires using the excess water they have stored inside their leaves.
Hens and chicks have a few distinctive characteristics. One of these is the beautiful rosette shape. Depending on the variety, the rosette will be more or less tightly arranged. They are sometimes used to add an artistic look to the landscape.
The large rosette is called the “hen” while the smaller plantlets are referred to as “chicks.” They range in leaf color from green, purple, lavender, red, burgundy and pale blue. They are fleshy and showy and can grow from 1-3 inches long and 1 inch wide. When grown in bright sunlight, the leaf margins may develop a reddish color.
Another interesting characteristic is that these plants are monocarpic, meaning that they flower only once and then die. The hen produces off-shoots (chicks), flowers and then expires — always leaving chicks to take her place, “always living.” Flowers can be gold, yellow, green, pink, red, white, red and burgundy and are in the shape of a star. The center of the plant pushes upwards, turning into a flower stalk. The stalk can grow up to 1 foot in height. The leaves at the end of the stalk will appear to peel back to reveal a cluster of buds. After the flower has bloomed, the hen should be removed and placed in the compost pile.
Some important things to take into consideration before planting are the soil and the area in which these plants will occupy. They do not require amended soil (hurray!). Actually, these plants prefer poor soil conditions and thrive in sandy locations. The only requirement is that the soil must be well-drained. They don’t like to sit in water. In fact, overwatering can lead to crown rot. Allow plants to dry out between watering times.
They thrive in full sun but also do well in light shade. They are versatile and are used in rock gardens, as a border front, in rock crevices, along stone walls, as a small area ground cover, as an edging. Sempervivum also make excellent container plants. Give them room to grow as they can spread to form wondrous colonies.
Hens and chicks are the mother and children of the garden, like our Blessed Mother Mary, whom we children of God love and adore and who is “always living” in our lives.
“If you ever feel distressed during your day, call upon our Lady, just say this simple prayer: ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’ I must admit, this prayer has never failed me.” — Mother Teresa