Common Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum)

Common Houseleek, Hens and Chicks, House Leek, Roof House Leek

Hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) are low-growing evergreen succulent plants that look a little like rubbery roses with thick, fleshy pads arranged in rosettes. They are considered alpine or rock garden plants, because of their hardiness and drought resistance. They are slow-growing plants, and they remain evergreen throughout the year, even in cold climates.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Sempervivum tectorum, the common houseleek, is a species of flowering plant in the family Crassulaceae, native to the mountains of southern Europe, cultivated in the whole of Europe for its appearance and a Roman tradition claiming that it protects buildings against lightning strikes.

Growing to 15 cm (6 in) tall by 50 cm (20 in) broad, it is a rosette-forming succulent evergreen perennial, spreading by offsets. It has grey-green, tufted, sessile leaves, 4–10 cm (2–4 in) in diameter, which are often suffused with rose-red. In summer it bears clusters of reddish-purple flowers, in multiples of 8–16, on hairy erect flat-topped stems. The species is highly variable, in part because hundreds of cultivars have been propagated, sold, and traded for nearly 200 years.

Sempervivum tectorum was described in 1753 by Linnaeus, who noted that its leaves are ciliate, that is, fringed with hairs.

Sempervivum tectorum is one of several houseleek species to be cultivated. It is valued as a groundcover for hot, dry places. It has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Sempervivum tectorum multiplies horizontally by propagation of underground roots. Propagation occurs in the spring, when budding occurs. From each mother plant you can get up to 4 new ones. They come off easily, taking care not to break the roots. Seeds propagation always works in spring.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Generally speaking, common houseleaks needs sufficient scattered light which should be bright and transparent. If there is not sufficient sunlight for a long time, the plant will be spindling, the tissue will become brittle, and the original color will fade slowly, as a result, the plant will grow into a loose shape, the color will turn green and yellow, and the resistance will decline.

Strong sunlight in summer may burn its leaves and stems. When exposed to the sun, it tends to grow slowly or even stop growing, its leaves grow compactly and internodes shorten, which results in shorter plants. For some succulent plants, their old leaves wither in summer and new leaves tend to be short and compact, showing a bare rod shape as a whole. In summer, you can set up a sunshade for it or move the potted plant indoors.

Temperature

Unlike other succulent plants that like heat, common houseleek prefers spring, fall, and even winter temperatures between 10 to 20 ℃. When the temperature is lower than 5 ℃ or higher than 30 ℃, it becomes dormant and requires less water. It can tolerate temperatures below 0 ℃ for a short period of time.

In summer, common houseleek cannot tolerate temperatures above 30 ℃ for long before it is sunburns or even dies. There is a popular species called Aeonium aureum, which is also a kind of succulent that does not like heat. When it enters dormancy, it looks like a rose, which is quite unique and beautiful. Its mortality rate is very low with appropriate water and good ventilation.

Watering

Except in extremely hot, dry situations, you won’t need to give this plant any supplemental water.

Soil

Soil is very important for the growth of common houseleek, which must be loose and ventilated. Generally speaking, the soil is divided into three layers from top to bottom, namely, the top deco layer, the middle planting layer, and the lower hydrophobic layer, which requires different types of soils.

The top deco soil is paved on the soil surface for the decoration and fixation of plants. Some can prevent diseases and insect pests. When it’s completely dry, it’s time to water. There are many types of soil that can be used as top deco soil, such as white pebble, akadama soil, kiryuu sands, kanuma soil, etc. You can select proper ones according to different pots and plants.

The middle layer soil can fix plants and provide nutrients for plants to grow. You can buy the configured succulent planting soil directly in store, or buy soil materials to mix by yourself. The common soil formulation for this layer is peat moss:perlite:volcanic rock:vermiculite = 4:2:2:2.

The soil of the lower hydrophobic layer is placed at the bottom of the flowerpot or garden pit. It can evacuate the excess water in the succulent root system and prevent the root system from rotting due to water accumulation. The hydrophobic layer can be made of ceramsite, volcanic stone or other large-scale culture media. Coal slag or charcoal are also good choices. If it is planted in the garden, it is necessary to make sure that the bottom drainage layer is in good water permeability.

Fertilizing

Most succulent plants are used to growing in the wild where the environment is poor, so they do not need fertilization in their growth cycle. You can add a little slow-release fertilizer in early summer, and it’s fine if you do not apply fertilizer. Please remember, don’t fertilize it during its dormancy period, because too many nutrients that it can’t absorb may cause damage to its growth.

Planting Instructions

When planting, you can first add the soil of the lower hydrophobic layer to the flowerpot, and then add a small amount of soil of the planting layer. Then spread out the root system of the plant and put them in. Cover the plant root with planting soil slowly, then add the top deco soil, and finally pour water once. If it is planted in the garden, you need to dig a pit 1.5-2 times the size of the root system first, and then follow the above steps.

In order to make it grow better and faster, or if the roots are too dense or unhealthy, it needs to be repotted. It is recommended to repot in spring and autumn. Before repotting, stop watering a few days in advance, after the soil is dried, you can gently knock the pot outside. Or you can use a knife to separate the soil from the pot. When pulling the plant up slightly, you can easily take out the plant, and then follow the steps described in the previous paragraph.

It should be noted that, though you can plant different colors of succulent plants together, it is better to avoid planting succulent plants with different growth habits together. Some succulent plants growing in summer need water, while other succulent plants in dormancy period do not need water. If they are planted together, the succulent plant in dormancy period will become sick due to excessive watering, while the succulent in growing period will wither due to insufficient water.

Pruning

Pruning this plant is typically unnecessary, but doing so could be beneficial in one instance. If you have too many hen and chick plants packed together, they could lose their distinctive rosette shape and instead grow taller into vertical plants. To avoid this divide or thin your plants if they looked choked and odd-shaped.

Propagation

Hens and chicks can be grown from seeds, seedlings, or by dividing offsets.

To replant a chick, you will need to wait until it is ready to be separated from the hen. A chick develops as a tiny bud in the hen and remains attached by a stem called a stolon. If the stolon still has leaves and the chick is still nestled in the hen, it’s not ready to be plucked. When the stolon has moved the chick outside the hen, leaves are possibly gone, and the chick is putting out its own roots. That is the time when the chick is ready to be propagated. Gently break the stem connecting the chick from the hen plant. Wiggle the chick plant loose for replanting.

When propagating offsets, don’t plant them too deeply. Take these steps:

  • Dig a shallow hole.
  • Spread the roots of the offset.
  • Cover the offset up to the crown of the plant.
  • Tamp the soil gently so that the plant is firmly set in the ground.
  • Water lightly, but you don’t need to water newly planted hens and chicks every day, the way you would with non-succulents. Hens and chicks need to let their roots dry out between waterings.

Growing from seed

Seeds can be sprinkled on top of a soil or gravel mix and kept moderately moist until they germinate. Once they sprout, sprinkle some fine gravel around them as mulch. Seeds are usually started in pots and then transferred to the garden as seedlings. You can start your seeds in the fall and transplant in the spring.

Potting and Repotting 

Planting them in a pot and raising it off the ground will also make hens and chicks more of a feature. A classic way to feather them is in strawberry pots, although you’ll need to divide them as they outgrow the pot. They are also natural with hypertufa planters or any kind of stone container.

Though they can survive outside in the freezing conditions in pots, it’s recommended to avoid clay and terracotta containers that can crack in harsh weather. Plant hens and chicks in outdoor pots made from resin, cement, metal, or wood that will hold up well in harsh winter growing zones.

Overwintering

In the winter, the outer leaves may brown and die, which is normal as the plant is protecting the interior buds. Though it is unnecessary to bring containers indoors during harsh winters, you can, but make sure the plants get full sun when inside. If you don’t have enough light, supplement the space with a growing light. Otherwise, they are perfectly safe outdoors in the winter.

Pests and Diseases

Hens and chicks are tough plants that usually grow without problems unless they are exposed to too much moisture. Crown rot may occur in wet soils. Some varieties can get Endophyllum rust, a fungus disease. Both problems can be prevented if the plant is grown in dry conditions.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Medicinal uses

The juice has been used in herbal medicine as an astringent and treatment for skin and eye diseases, including by Galen and Dioscorides, to ease inflammation and, mixed with honey, to treat thrush; however, large doses have an emetic effect. Pliny also mentions it, and Marcellus Empiricus listed it as a component in external treatments for contusions, nervous disorders, intestinal problems and abdominal pain, and mixed with honey, as part of the antidotum Hadriani (Hadrian’s antidote), a broad-spectrum palliative for internal complaints.

Romans grew the plant in containers in front of windows and associated it with love medicine.

  • Other uses

The plant has been traditionally thought to protect against thunderstorms, and grown on house roofs for that reason, which is why it is called House Leek. Many of its popular names in different languages reflect an association with the Roman thunder-god Jupiter, notably the Latin barba Jovis (Jupiter’s beard), referred to in the Floridus traditionally attributed to Aemilius Macer, and its French derivative joubarbe, which has in turn given rise to jubard and jo-barb in English; or with the Norse thunder-god Thor as in German Donnerbart. It is also called simply thunder-plant. Anglo-Saxon þunorwyrt may have either meaning. However, the association with Jupiter has also been derived from a resemblance between the flowers and the god’s beard; in modern times, it has also been called St. George’s beard.

Common Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) Details

Common name Common Houseleek, Hens and Chicks, House Leek, Roof House Leek
Botanical name Sempervivum tectorum
Plant type Houseplant
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Medium
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Loam (Silt)
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Gold/Yellow