Monday, February 22, 2010

No-Fuss Houseleeks

Drive through the countryside on state and county roads, or better yet, get out and walk.  Enjoy a slower pace and pay closer attention to what folks are growing in their yards.  I bet you'll see Houseleeks, sometimes called Hens-and-Chicks. 

Properly known as Sempervivum (pronounced sem-per-VEE-vum), meaning "always living", you may see them spilling out of flower pots, planters and even from old kettles.  I once saw some growing out of  a pair of old boots filled with potting soil.  My grandmother grew them in common concrete troughs flanking the front steps.  I didn't think much about them then, but I've come to appreciate them since.  I was told when I was a child that houseleeks, if grown close by, were supposed to protect buildings from being struck by lightening, but was assured it was only a tale.

Houseleeks are so common you'd think they're from around here, but they are native to parts of southern and eastern Europe, around the Mediterranean, north Africa and parts of western Asia.  There are about 40 species in the genus, and many more hybrids - some of natural origin.

All of them are perennials with thick, succulent leaves arranged in rosettes.  The leaves store water, so they're very drought tolerant. They grow quickly in full sun and in almost any poor soil type as long as it is slightly acidic or neutral and well-drained.  Sandy or rocky soil is ideal.  The name, "Hens-and-chicks", was undoubtedly bestowed because of the smaller plants that are produced on short side-shoots around the parent plant.  I should mention that "always living" is a bit misleading for the parent plant dies after flowering.  But because "chicks" are produced in abundance, there are always houseleeks to enjoy.  I have no idea why they are called "houseleeks", but I understand that one variety is eaten in Taiwan.

Their ability to thrive in difficult, dry areas is well-known.  Hardiness varies, but some varieties will thrive into USDA climate zones 2 and 3.  Virtually all are hardy from zone 5 through 9.  Houseleeks vary primarily in foliage shape, color and growth height, though the differences are not too great.  Height is usually 6" or less, and they can be expected to spread up to 12" within a few seasons.  They are are often used as edging plants, in rock gardens, and in containers.  I believe they would be very appropriate for "green roof" use.  Houseleek collectors are always on the lookout for new color shades.

Plant houseleeks about 6” to 12" apart.  Pint-sized plants usually produce a few "chicks" within the year.  They may be divided every 3 to 4 years to maintain compactness.  In the spring, you can propagate through stem cutting or division. It’s easy to pull a rosette off the main plant and transplant the small rosette to a new area in the garden.  Let the ground dry between waterings.  Lower growing varieties tend to be dense and choke out weeds, but if soil is fertile, neighboring plants grow faster and obscure the humble houseleeks.

Not only are they drought-tolerant, houseleeks are not bothered by most pests including deer and rabbits.

My grandmother liked "no-fuss" plants and houseleeks fit the bill.  I bet you will enjoy them, too.

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