Growing Hens And Chicks: How To Care For Sempervivum [Houseleek]

Hens and Chicks aka Sempervivum pronounced (sem-per-VEEV-um) makes up a group of approximately forty different species of small, rosette-forming succulent plants hailing from North Africa, Western Asia, and Europe.

These easy-care succulents are an excellent choice for young or novice gardeners.

Sempervivum Hens and Chicks

In this article, we discuss this popular succulent known also as Houseleek plant or Hen and Chicks and share advice on curating and caring for your collection. Read on to learn more.

What Are Hens And Chicks Plants?

Sempervivum is a genus of stemless succulents. The young plants or offsets develop in the leaf axils.

The alternate leaves are thick and fleshy, are often are red spotted toward the tips and form compact rosettes.

In the “spider-web” forms, the entire plant looks to like it is covered with silvery cobwebs.

All the hardy forms do well rock gardens and borders. The more tender or greenhouse types are valuable as succulents indoors and as summer plants outdoors.

The even smaller sorts are popular additions for use in dish gardens, terrariums, and other miniature arrangements.

Can The Mother Hen and Chicks Plant Grow Outside?

The most well-known “common” houseleek Sempervivum tectorum comes from Europe where it is traditionally planted on the roofs of cottages for many centuries.

The reason? Folklore has it that a good crop of hens and chicks succulents on your roof will protect your home from lightning and fire and will also to help hold the roof slates in place.

Furthermore, the edible evergreen leaves provided emergency greenery in the winter time.

They also provide a handy gel much like the gel in Aloe vera plants and used in much the same way, as a treatment for burns, bruises, cuts and skin conditions.

Even in this day and age, many European cottages exhibit fine displays of houseleeks on the roof.

How Long Does The Hen & Chicks Plant Live?

The short answer is “forever”. Although individual plants don’t live forever, they reproduce with such wild abandon.

If you have one, you can always expect to have at least one (probably more).

The Latin genus name of the humble houseleek is “semper,” which means “always” and “vivus” which means “alive.”

The specific epithet, “tectum” means “roof.” So, this plant is “always alive on the roof.”

Most of these plants are mountain dwellers, very hardy, cold tolerant and long-lived. In fact, it is difficult to kill these robust little plants.

They survive and thrive under all sorts of adverse circumstances, as long as you don’t overwater.

Where Can You Plant Hens and Chickens Plants?

If you live in a cool, bright place, you can plant them on the rooftop.

In the garden, Sempervivum hens and chicks are ideal for rock gardens, cracks, and crevices in the walls, pavement or between rocks.

They’re good for any dry area or other locations that may be unsuitable for growing other plants.

Hen and chicks are the next best thing to an air plant. They can grow practically anywhere. Examples of good growing spaces include:

  • Cracks in the sidewalk
  • Cracks in rocks
  • Rock gardens
  • In seashells

Hen and Chicks plant care indoors or outdoors is easy because they’re hardy and grow on rocks with shallow depressions or basins.

You can create a charming miniature landscape indoors or outdoors by growing them in this way.

They also do well in very shallow planters on sunny windowsills indoors or in outdoor settings. They are made to order for creative planting projects.

Sempervivums plant displayed in different decorative containers

What Are The Best Hens and Chicks Varieties?

In addition to the common Sempervivum tectorum, there are hundreds of interesting and colorful variations and an ever-growing number of hybrids. Some favorites include:

Sempervivum tectorum var. calcareum a fairly large species with gray-green leaves and burgundy tips.

Some popular cultivars of this species are “Mrs. Giuseppe” and “Sir William Lawrence”.

Sempervivum arachnoideum or “Cobweb Houseleek” is a smaller variety with very tight rosettes and interesting “cobwebbed” foliage. It does very well in a rock garden or kept in a small pot on a windowsill.

NOTE: Sempervivum arachnoideum and Sempervivum pittoni are “hairy types” and in northern climates may rot from snow. Move these types and varieties to a greenhouse or cold frame over winter.

  • Sempervivum arenarium – Forming tiny, globular clumps of 60 to 80 bright green leaves sometimes tipped in red; flowers pale yellow. A sand-loving species.
  • Sempervivum braunii – leaf rosettes about 2 inches across. Produces dull yellow flowers in July.
  • Sempervivum calcareum – From France; attains 1 ft., has smooth leaves with red-brown tips, and pale red flowers in summer.
  • Sempervivum fimbriatum – A hybrid with reddish leaves tipped with hairs. The outer hairs are reddish. Features bright red flowers in July.
  • Sempervivum montanum – Tightly packed leaf rosettes, bright purple flowers in June, on 6” inch stems.
  • Sempervivum soboliferum – A popular form with pale yellow flowers in dense heads 4 inches across in summer. New rosettes are attached to the parent plants by slender threads.
  • Sempervivum tectorum – The best known species with many names, including Roof Houseleek, Hen-and-chickens, Old Man, Old Woman, etc. Leaf rosettes to 4” inches across; hairy stems to 1 foot high; flowers pink to red, about 1” inch across.
  • Sempervivum atlanticum – Pale green leaves, slender smooth, tipped with reddish-brown when mature. Pale red 1” inch flowers in summer on 1′ foot stems.

How To Grow Hens And Chicks

These plants have been in cultivation for centuries, and growing them is simple.

They literally “grow like a weed” from cracks in the sidewalk or between rocks or, as we’ve said, even on the roofs of houses in cool, bright places.

Hens and chicks plants will grow outdoors, and yes, you can grow sempervivum hens and chicks indoors as well. They make excellent indoor additions.

These plants are very versatile and will do well in almost any setting as long as it is not too hot, too wet or too fertile.

They prefer neglect to any special loving care. Just think about the way they have traditionally been grown – on rooftops in cold climates.

In short, they thrive under these bright, exposed, neglected conditions.

What Soil To Use For Sempervivum?

To grow them successfully, provide shallow, well-drained soil. A combination of:

… is a good choice.

Remember, the root system of the houseleek is very small, so always use shallow pots or stones or shells with natural hollows or depressions.

When using a stone, you don’t even need to add soil.

Just set the chick and hen plant in the depression and wet the rock down from time-to-time to provide the plant with moisture.

In your home or office, keep your houseleeks in shallow containers with very coarse, well-draining soil or no soil at all.

How Much Water Does A Sempervivum Need?

Water sparingly in the spring and summer and not at all in the winter. Don’t fertilize at all.

What Are Hens and Chicks Light Requirements?

Keep your chicken and hen plants in a bright, cool place with lots of sunshine. A hot southern or western window will not do.

Provide plenty of bright sunlight, but protect from excessive heat, in a north or east facing window or a few feet away from a south or west facing window.

If they seem to suffer from the direct sun through the glass, move them away from the window a bit.

How To Propagate Hens and Chicks?

Propagation of Sempervivum plants couldn’t be easier.

The common name “Hen & Chicks” is derived from the fact that these plants resemble a hen with her chicks.

The “mother” plant sends off shoots that develop into smaller plants with tiny roots.

In a natural setting, the plantlets detach on their own and may take root where they are, or they may blow about like little tumbleweeds until they find a suitable home.

To propagate Sempervivum tectorum, all you have to do is wait.

When the plant produces little plantlets, gently remove them and plant them just as you would a full grown plant.

Set them in shallow, well-drained soil or on a suitable rock or shell.

OR

Take leaves or small cuttings and allow them to dry and heal over for about a week. Next place them in sand and wait for the tiny rosettes to start in a few weeks.

Water sparingly during the spring and summer and not at all in the autumn and winter. Never fertilize.

Are There Hens And Chicks Flowers?

Very rarely, houseleeks produce small, scentless, pink or yellow flowers on a stalk which emerges from the center of the plant.

If this happens at all, it will occur during the spring or summer. The flowers, borne in dense heads, are variously colored—white, pink, greenish, yellow or purplish.

How Long Do These Sempervivum Succulents Live?

Hen and chicks succulents propagate so easily they essentially live forever.

Sempervivums Care: Do They Die After Flowering?

Individual plants are long-lived, but after blooming, the “hen” dies and fades away. The old “hen” plant can be removed leaving more space for the “chicks.“

Even though the “hen plant” dies they always leave plenty of replacements in their wake.

How Quickly Do They Grow & How Big Do They Get?

These rapidly growing plants are mostly a groundcover (or roof cover), so they don’t get very big.

There are many other Sempervivum plant varieties for all types of gardening.

They grow from tiny, dime-sized plantlets (Sempervivum arenaria) to full-grown plants, ranging in size from one inch to eight inches across (Sempervivum magnificum) and just as tall (depending on the variety), within a couple of months.

Then they start sending out shoots of their own.

Recommended Reading: 

7 Quick Facts About Hen & Chick Plants

  • Common house leeks are herbaceous, perennial succulents and members of the Crassulaceae family along with Sedum morganianumthe “burro’s tail” and popular succulent jade plant.
  • Their height varies from half an inch to one foot high, and they can spread from half an inch to one and a half feet.
  • They are native to Central Europe and do well in USDA hardiness zones 3-8.
  • If they flower at all, it will usually occur in June or July, and the parent plant will die after flowering.
  • Provide shallow, coarse, quickly draining soil or no soil at all.
  • Water sparingly in the growing season and not at all the rest of the year.
  • Don’t fertilize.

Do Sempervivum Plants Have Any Pest Or Disease Problems?

Most problems with houseleeks are caused by overwatering.

Remember, these plants appreciate and thrive in dry conditions. Excessive over-watering will lead to rot and pest infestation.

Even in ideal conditions, you may occasionally have trouble with root mealybugs, which live in dry soil.

Check potted plants from time-to-time by taking the plant out of the container and check for root mealybugs.

If you see any infestation in the soil, treat with a systemic insecticide solution or neem oil used as a soil drench.

Some succulent and cactus growers use isopropyl alcohol as a soil drench to deal with soil-dwelling pests.

It is also safe to use rubbing alcohol to wipe the leaves and to clean between the leaves with a cotton swab if you find mealybugs on the plant.

What Are The Best Uses Of Hen & Chicks In The Garden?

Sempervivum tectorum is excellent as a ground cover. Outdoors, these hardy, low maintenance succulents like full sun and low-to-medium watering.

They do well in poor, rocky, shallow soil and are resistant to drought, deer, and air pollution.

The plant grows in a mat formation when used as a ground (or roof) cover. A fully developed rosette are typically about four inches across and produce thick, glossy, edible leaves.

The many varieties of this plant come in colors ranging from bright green to purple to dusky red and many combinations thereof.

Sempervivums come in many interesting varieties. This makes it easy to create an impressive collection in your rock garden or containers.

Hen and chicks succulents also do very well lining a walkway, along the edges or tops of stone walls or around the foundation of your home.

Because they are so tough, prolific and versatile, you can experiment with placing them in hollow spots in trees or other interesting and unusual places that provide little or no soil, lots of good drainage and good lighting. [source]

10 Best Ways To “Show Off” Sempervivums

  • Group several of the same kids together
  • Cluster them in low containers
  • Contrast row plantings against a layer of white pebbles
  • Hen and Chicken planters: wooden squares, triangles or planter boxes
  • Set single varieties in squatty azalea pots
  • Use them to top stone walls
  • Tuck them into garden corners, rock gardens or chinks in walls or walks
  • Plant them in strawberry jars
  • Plant and create centerpieces
  • Display them on pieces of driftwood or a porous cactus wood stump (more below)

Tips For Planting And Displaying Your Hens and Chicks Collection

To create great displays use “wooden planters” which are knots, slabs, small stumps, or other pieces of decaying wood you can pick up on fishing trips or vacations through woods or desert.

They are lightweight, easily moved, and best of all they cost nothing!

Look for pieces with knots, hollows, and ridges where some soil could be tucked in.

For example, a gnarled grape root with many natural cavities or pockets that could be enlarged, made an ideal setting for sempervivums.

Grower Tip: Before planting hens and chicks in any kind driftwood or stump, throw the wood into a tub of hot soapy water with some neem oil or pour boiling water over the wood to kill and insect pests it may be harboring.

For a natural effect, use the wood as it is, without painting or refinishing.

If you are working with a stump, invert it, so the root end becomes the planter top. This gives a nicely balanced planting with a look of stability.

Pack all hollows and holes full of moistened garden soil into which you have mixed a generous amount of damp peat moss. Tamp it in with a thin stick.

Tack a layer of sphagnum moss or sheet moss over the soil to keep it from washing away. Now you are ready to plant your Sempervivums.

Large Plants Are The Stars

Use a small pointed stick or an old table fork to make planting holes in the moss. Plant the sempervivums into the soil-filled areas.

Begin with large Sempervivums such as red Sempervivum magnificum for the basic design.

Use miniatures and small varieties like the silver-haired Sempervivum arachnoideum (Cobweb Houseleek) and emerald green Sempervivum globiferum subs. arenarium make perfect fillers.

Trailing sedums add grace to new plantings and can be removed when the sempervivums start colonizing.

Set the finished plantings in a semi-shaded area to become established.

Water once or twice a week with a sprinkling can or fine spray so the new plants won’t become dislodged.

It usually takes these plantings about a month to become established.

You can tell when a plant is firmly established by giving it a gentle tug. If the plant easily dislodges, leave the planting another week or so to settle in.

Once established, set the planter in any sunny place. A patio, porch, or pebbled surface makes an excellent background for it. Water it as often as needed with a spray from the garden hose.

Fertilize the planting monthly by pouring a diluted liquid fertilizer directly on the wooden base, making sure the wood is moist first, so it will absorb.

These different planters are ideal for showing off a collection of sempervivums, much better than in a garden bed, where small species might be lost.

Start by planting with several varieties and when you find a one for your collection add them to the wooden base.

You’ll find many uses for these portable planters. Keep them near the patio where guests can enjoy choosing their favorites from the many kinds planted on the driftwood.

What To Look For When Buying Hen & Chicks?

As prolific as these plants are, you may never need to buy one.

If you are a member of a garden club or have friends who have them, you can probably pick up plantlets free of charge or in exchange for some plant you have in abundance.

When purchasing these plants at a nursery, check to be sure the base of the plant has no rot and there are no pests in residence.

Look for plump, firm, unblemished leaves.

Wrapping Up

Sempervivums, (chickens and hens plant), are easy to grow, “live forever” and are excellent plant choices for the new gardener. Houseleeks plants are made to order for creative planting projects allow you to discover new ways to display commonly grown plants.