Sempervivum, Jovibarba and Rosularia are three genera of succulent, rosette forming plants belonging to the Crassulaceae family. They are commonly known as Houseleeks or Hen and Chickens.
The main attraction of these plants is their colorful rosettes of leaves. These range from bright yellow, through various shades of green, grey, pink, purple, red, orange and brown, to almost black in some varieties. The leaves may be dull or glossy, or covered with soft down or longer hairs. Small silvery hairs are commonly found along the leaf margins and in many varieties the leaf tips bear a tuft of longer hairs that can form a "cobweb" over the surface of the rosettes. Leaf shape can also vary from short, succulent, almost round leaves to long, tapering, finely pointed ones.
The rosettes are most striking in the spring and summer but even in the winter when growth stops, many varieties remain attractively colored. It is the endless range of different leaf shapes, colors and textures that make this group so interesting to enthusiasts.
Houseleeks reproduce vegetatively by producing a cluster of offsets around the base of the plant. These are often borne on the ends of long stolons and they can either be left to root around the main plant to form a cushion of rosettes, or they can be detached and grown separately.
In their second or third year, most rosettes will stop producing offsets and begin the process of flowering. The first sign of this is usually a deepening of colour of a large rosette followed by elongation of the main stem. This grows upwards for 4 to 12 inches (10 to 30 cm) then produces a large cluster of attractive pink, purple, yellow or white flowers.
Photo via n-s-succulents.co.uk
The three genera are most easily distinguished by their flowers. In Sempervivum the flowers are star-shaped with 8 to 16 petals. The most common colors are shades of pink or red although some have cream or yellow flowers.
Jovibarba flowers are yellow, more bell-like and usually have six petals.
Rosularia flowers typically have 6 to 8 petals but the flowers open wide and are usually cream or pale yellowish colour.
Most flowers produce fertile seeds but hybridization is very common so in order to propagate known varieties it is essential to use offsets rather than seeds.
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As drought-tolerant succulents, hens and chicks plants are among the best perennials for rock-gardens—they also grow well in cracks, whether in stone walls or between garden stepping stones. In their native Europe, they were grown on thatched roofs to help prevent fires and provide a winter vegetable, as they are edible.
If you're looking for a ground cover, you can replace your lawn with a combination of hens and chicks plus creeping sedum. Your hens will spread via underground roots and will produce at least four chicks each growing season. These little plants are called offsets and can be broken off and transplanted to new areas should you choose.
The hens may flower in the summer, which can happen after one year or after several years. The flowers are dramatic, but the mother hen will die after flowering, and you should remove the dead plant. Flowering can also be a sign of poor conditions, so you might check that drainage and sun are adequate in the spot where the mother was growing.
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 ample "offspring." That being said, the plants can grow in partial shade as well, especially if being cared for in an especially hot, dry climate.
Hens and chicks plants are especially unfussy about their soil and will grow best in a mixture that is poor and sandy. 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 peat into the mixture to increase the aeration and drainage. If you're growing your plants in a container, the best potting medium is a mix formulated for succulents and cactus. You can also choose a pot that is made from clay or terracotta to help wick extra moisture from the soil. The hens and chicks plant also prefers a soil pH that is neutral.
Hens and chicks are drought-tolerant perennials, so they can withstand going weeks at a time without proper 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.
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, so there is no need to fertilize hens and chicks plants.
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Growing hens and chicks is easy. The plants are readily available in most nurseries. They require full sun and well drained, even gritty soil. Hens and chicks don’t need much fertilizer and should rarely be watered. As succulents, hens and chicks plants are accustomed to very little water. A fun project is learning how to grow hens and chicks from the offsets. The chick can be gently pulled off the mother plant and installed in a new location. Hens and chicks require very little soil and can be made to grow even in rock crevasses.
The ideal temperature for hens and chicks is between 65 and 75 degrees F. (18-24 C.). When temperatures zoom upwards or plummet down, the plants become semi-dormant and will cease growing. Potted plants can be placed in clay pots with a cactus or succulent mix. You can also make your own with two parts topsoil, two parts sand, and one part perlite. Potted plants will need more fertilizer than those in the ground. A liquid fertilizer diluted by half should be watered in during spring and summer irrigation.
You can also grow hens and chicks from seed. Online nurseries carry an amazing array of varieties and seeding your own will give you many forms for you and your friends. Seed is sown in a cactus mix and misted until evenly damp, then the seeds are kept in a warm room until germination. After germination, some fine gravel is sprinkled around the plants to help conserve moisture. Seedlings will need to be misted every few days and grown in a bright sunny window. Transplant them after they have reached an inch (2.5 cm.) in diameter.
Hens and chicks plants need little care. The mother plant will die off after four to six years and should be removed. The plants produce a flower when mature and these should be pulled off the plant when they expire. Divide the chicks from the mother plant at least every two years to prevent overcrowding.