Taxonomy and Botany of Hens and Chicks
Plant taxonomy classifies hens and chicks (that is the plural form of the name) as Sempervivum tectorum. Alternate common names exist. People frequently employ a hyphenated spelling. Thus S. tectorum is also commonly referred to as "hen-and-chicks," "hens-and-chickens," and variants thereof.
Sempervivum is a genus in the Crassulacaea (or "stonecrop") family, as are:
Of these, Sedum is especially prevalent in landscaping, featuring such superstars of the garden-center world as 'Autumn Joy.'
Hens and chicks plants are mat-forming succulents that produce clusters of rosettes. The parent rosettes are the "hens," and the smaller rosettes that spring from them are the "chicks" or "chickens." This low-growing (4 inches tall) perennial will quickly spread to 2 feet or more in width (through propagation or self-propagation; see below). Although grown for its foliage, hens and chicks do sometimes flower, on a tall (1 foot) flower stalk. The foliage of hens and chicks plants is most typically red, green, blue, golden, coppery, or some mixture thereof.
Growing Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements, Plant Care
Give newly-transplanted plants sufficient water to help them get established.
Grow hens and chicks plant in full sun to partial shade. Optimal coloration in the foliage is more likely to be achieved in full sun. The main soil requirement is that the plant be grown in a well-drained soil. It also prefers a soil pH that is neutral (around 7).
In the South, hens and chicks can profit from partial shade, but the requirement for well-drained soil is a must in any zone. Plant care in the South will focus on providing adequate moisture during the hottest, driest periods of the summer. But, generally speaking, these are drought-tolerant perennials. Try to avoid ever over-watering them (check to see that the soil is dry before watering).
Further Care for Hens and Chicks
The "hens" will die after flowering, but by that time they will have produced numerous "chicks" or "chickens" (known more technically as "offsets") to take their place (remove the dead mother plants). To propagate, simply split off the chickens from the parent plant and transplant them. Providing contact with the soil should be sufficient for transplanting, since hens and chicks root readily. Plants will spread on their own under ideal conditions.
This ground cover will thrive in poor soils, so you eliminate one plant-care task in growing hens and chicks: namely, fertilization. They are also deer-resistant ground covers.
Uses in Landscaping
As drought-tolerant succulents, hens and chicks plants are rock-garden perennials par excellence. My tutorial on how to build rock gardens illustrates how nicely hens and chicks complement other rock-garden components.
Their need for sharp drainage makes them a perfect fit for my rock garden, which is essentially a raised bed constructed out of rock (meaning that water percolates through it pretty quickly).
Recommended Types, by Color
Many cultivars have been developed from the Sempervivum genus. These include (the descriptions in parentheses are generalized, since plant appearance varies greatly due to different growing conditions, etc):
- 'Bernstein' (copper leaves with some gold mixed in)
- 'Big Blue' (bluish-green leaves)
- 'Black' (green leaves tipped in purple)
- 'Calcereum Greenii' (light green leaves tipped in red)
- 'Damask' (reddish foliage)
- 'Terracotta Baby' (orangey-red foliage)
- 'Viking' (purplish-red foliage)
Origin of the Latin Name for Hens and Chicks
While the origin of the common names, "hens and chicks" or "hens and chickens" is apparently based on the way the plant self-propagates, with mother plants (hens) giving birth to baby plants (chicks), the reader may be curious about the origin of the plant's Latin name, Sempervivum tectorum.
The word for the genus, Sempervivum, is Latin for "always live," that is, evergreen. So far, so good. But when you discover that the word for the species, tectorum, means "on roofs" in Latin, you may start scratching your head. What does this evergreen perennial have to do with roofs?
Well, it turns out that hens and chicks, which are indigenous to Europe (where they are sometimes called "houseleeks"), were traditionally planted in thatched roofs. European folklore held that they were supposed to provide protection against lightning-induced fires, due to the plants' association with two gods of lightning: Thor and Zeus (Jupiter). In this case, folklore is justified, in the sense that succulents such as hens and chicks are fire-resistant and would perhaps slow down the spread of fire through thatch.