Hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) is a mat-forming succulent native to Europe and Africa. Its growth habit features fleshy pointed leaves arranged in rosettes. The parent rosette is the "hen" and the smaller rosettes that grow from it are the "chicks." Over time, this ground-hugging plant with a fondness for sandy, gravelly soil will spread to form colonies 2 feet wide or more. Although typically grown for its interesting shape and succulent leaves (usually red, green, blue, gold, or copper), hens and chicks does sometimes flower on tall stalks.
Hens and chicks has a moderately quick growth rate and is best planted in spring—however, if you'd like to grow new plants from seed, you may want to start them in pots in the fall so the young plants are ready to go into the garden in the spring. They also make a great houseplant.
|Common Name||Hens and chicks, house leek|
|Botanical Name||Sempervivum tectorum|
|Plant Type||Succulent, evergreen perennial|
|Mature Size||6–12 in. tall, 6–18 in. wide|
|Soil Type||Sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral soil pH (7.0)|
|Flower Color||Light pink, reddish-purple|
|Hardiness Zones||3–11 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Europe, Africa|
Watch Now: How to Grow and Care for a Hens and Chicks Plant
Hens and Chicks Care
Hens and chicks will do well when planted in just about any well-drained soil in full sun to light shade, but its enthusiasm for sandy, gravelly soil makes it a favorite choice for rock gardens, wall crevices, and other places where other plants struggle. Its care needs are minimal; the worst thing you can do is over-tend it with too much water and fertilizer.
Mature plants may send up flower stalks in summer, but the central rosette (the hen) will die after flowering, at which time you will need to remove it, allowing the offset chicks to continue the colony.
Grow your hens and chicks plants in full sun (at least six hours daily), which will lead to both optimal coloration in the foliage, as well as plentiful offsets. That being said, the plants can grow in partial shade as well, especially if being cared for in an especially hot, dry climate. The colors of the foliage may not be as intense in partial shade, though.
Hens and chicks plants are especially nonchalant about their soil and will grow best in a mix that is sandy or gravelly. The main soil requirement for the plant is that it be well-draining. If your soil is heavy and doesn't drain well, work some gravel, pumice, perlite, or sand into the mixture to increase the aeration and drainage. These plants prefer a neutral soil.
If you're growing your plants in a container, the best potting medium is a mix formulated for succulents and cactus.
Hens and chicks are drought-tolerant perennials, so they can withstand going weeks at a time without watering. Give newly transplanted plants sufficient water to help them get established, but once they are, be careful not to over-water them. Check the soil and make sure it is dry before watering.
Temperature and Humidity
Hens and chicks can be successfully grown in a range of temperatures, but prefer an average climate between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If temperatures drop too low, they will not necessarily die off but will definitely stop growing and go into a semi-dormant state. Additionally, hens and chicks tolerate a wide range of humidity levels and are quite popular in dry climates.
This ground cover will thrive in poor soils. They appreciate a slow-release fertilizer designed for succulents or cactus that's low in nitrogen and includes beneficial soil microbes. Be careful no to over fertilize.
Types of Hens and Chicks
You may find this plant sold in two species variations: Sempervivum tectorum var. arvernense, which features leaves that are covered with velvet-like hairs; and Sempervivum tectorum var. tectorum, with smooth leaves edged with hairs.
Commercially, there are several cultivars of S. tectorum offered, bred for different foliage colors and shapes:
- 'Bernstein' has copper and gold leaves.
- 'Big Blue' is an eye-catching version with bluish-green leaves.
- 'Black' is a stunning version with green leaves that have purple tips.
- 'Terracotta Baby' is a variety with vibrant orangey-red foliage.
- 'Claudia' has large rosettes with bright red leaves.
- 'Herringer Rose' has 5-inch rosettes with red leaves, tinged with brown.
- 'Launcelot' has brownish-red leaves.
- 'Morgenrote' is a gorgeous cultivar featuring plumb-red leaves edges with green.
- 'Pelora' is an unusual mutant variety with bright green, bullet-shaped leaves.
Other species of this genus are also sold, usually as houseplants. You may find them lumped together as Sempervivum, with no species designation.
Propagating Hens and Chicks
To propagate a hens and chicks plant, simply split the offsets (the "chicks") from the parent plant (the "hen"), preserving the roots of each, if possible. Here's how:
- Using a small trowel, transplant the offsets into well-drained soil, creating a shallow hole where you can spread out the roots.
- Replace the soil to the crown of the plant and gently compact around the roots.
- You can give the offset a light watering, but let the new plant dry out between waterings. Plants will spread on their own under ideal conditions.
How to Grow Hens and Chicks From Seed
In addition to propagating by digging up the offset chicks, you can also grow hens and chicks from the seeds that are produced if a mature plant produces flowers. Collect the seeds from the pods left behind after the flowers fade, and sprinkle them on top of pots filled with cactus/succulent potting mix. Lightly moisten the mix and place the pot in a bright location; the seeds should sprout within three weeks. At that point, you can add some fine gravel and mulch. However, seeds from hybrid plants may not produce plants that are true to the parents.
Potting and Repotting Hens and Chicks
This plant makes a good potted specimen when planted in a shallow, well-drained container filled with a cactus/succulent potting mix. Use a clay pot, which will wick moisture to prevent overwatering. Hens and chicks can be grown alone as a small cluster colony, or in a large container as one plant in a mixed group of succulents or miniature rock garden.
Hens and chicks don't require winter cold protection, but they resent wet winter conditions, so it's best to clean away ground debris to keep collected moisture from introducing rot. Outdoor potted plants are subject to temperature extremes in cold winter zones, so place them in a sheltered location, or bring them indoors for the winter.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Hens and chicks that are grown indoors, in a greenhouse, or in overly-moist conditions tend to have the biggest issue with pests, most often in the form of mealy bugs and aphids. If you notice signs of an infestation, try to remove the bugs using a cotton swap or cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol. You can also treat the plants with neem oil or insecticidal soap.
Moist conditions or poor drainage can encourage a variety of fungal leaf spots or root rot. Keeping these plants in dry conditions is the best way to forestall these issues.
How to Get Hens and Chicks to Bloom
These plants are grown for their foliage and geometric growth habit, so flowering is not necessarily desirable. These are plants that usually propagate themselves vegetatively, not through seeds, so flowering can even be be a sign of poor conditions. Should you want the plant to flower (such as if you want to experiment with seed propagation), you can deliberately stress the plant by shading it.
Common Problems With Hens and Chicks
In ideal conditions, hens and chicks is a pretty carefree plant. When problems occur, it's often because the plant is getting too much water.
Plant Turns Mushy
When the leaves turn soft and begin to wilt, it is usually because overly wet conditions are causing the plant to rot. The roots may already be rotting, so the best solution is to dig up the plant, split off any of the "chick" rosettes that are still intact, and discard the bad sections. If this is a regular occurrence, it indicates your soil needs to have improved drainage by amending it with sand or gravel.
Rosettes Die Back
It is natural for a "hen" rosette to die back after it produces flowers and sets seed. Paradoxically, this plant is more likely to flower and subsequently die if it is getting too much water or too much fertilizer.
How can I use hens and chicks in the landsdcape?
If you're looking for a ground cover, you can replace your lawn with a combination of hens and chicks plus creeping sedum. Hens and chicks also makes a good potted plant, both outdoors and indoors.
How long does this plant live?
These plants are known as monocarpic plants. The individual rosettes die out soon after they send up flower shoots. But flowering doesn't always occur, and even when some rosettes die out, the offshoot "chicks" will continue the colony. An established colony will live for decades with this constant replacement of rosettes.
Are there other Sempervivum species I should consider?
There are more than 40 species in the Sempervivum genus, and several are popular garden and houseplant species. In addition to S. tectorum, you can look for Sempervivum arachnoideum (cobweb house leek), Sempervivum calcareum, and Sempervivum ciliosum (Teneriffe houseleek). All species have the characteristic rosette shape.
Where did the name "house leek" come from?
The common name "houseleek" comes from an Anglo Saxon word “leac,” meaning plant. These plants are literally known to grow on houses, especially those with slate or stone shingles. In fact, they were sometimes deliberately planted on roofs in order to hold roof shingles in place.
Is this plant edible?
The leaves of hens and chicks are completely edible and can be used in salads and other dishes. The taste is slightly sour, like an unripe apple.