One of the most widely-planted succulents is the houseleek Sempervivum tectorum (Crassulaceae, stonecrop family). Grown since Roman times, it has many common names. You might know it as hens-and-chicks, bullocks eye, Jupiter’s beard, Thor’s beard, syngreen, sengren, liveforever, or something else.
The name hens-and-chicks or hens-and-chickens (a name also applied to other plants which make little replicates of themselves such as sedums) comes from the way tiny plants form around the established plant. This makes houseleek an attractive ground cover.
After several years, when a little round houseleek rosette of leaves has stored enough energy, it sends a flowering stalk up six inches or more, with pink star-shaped flowers. After flowering, the rosette dies. That death leaves a gap in the ground cover, but the neighboring rosettes will expand to fill it in.
The Houseleek Family
For a long time, the common houseleek was pretty much the only one of its relatives in cultivation, but there are 33 other species of Sempervivum, and these days many are available to gardeners. Call Sempervivum tectorum the common houseleek when you want to distinguish it, since the other Sempervivum species are usually called houseleeks too. People have bred varieties of common houseleek that are redder or whiter and crossed it to make hybrids, providing all sorts of diversity.
The leaves and flowering stalks of common houseleek are edible, crunchy and moist, though astringent. A nice snack fresh or as texture in a salad. They can also be pressed into refreshing drinks. In large quantities, however, houseleeks cause stomach discomfort for some people.
Sempervivum, means “live forever” (semper = always, vivum = living), as do its common names: syngren, syngreen, and, of course, liveforever. This is likely a tribute to being a succulent. Succulents are plants with thick, fleshy leaves or stems in which they store water. All over the world, plants of very different ancestry have become succulent, so being a succulent doesn’t suggest any particular group of plants. Some groups, for example the stonecrops and cacti, have many species that are succulent. The water stored in the succulent leaves means a houseleek, lying out of the ground, can live for weeks. Non-succulents—violets, clover—quickly wilt when left out of the ground and in less than a day, are dead. The houseleek, after a week, will recover if placed in damp soil. People have admired this for millennia.
As you might expect, houseleeks do well in full sun and in rock gardens and have low water requirements. Most places they are easy to grow.
Next Post: houseleek as a healing plant and the strange story of the name houseleek
Coombes, A. J. 1985. Dictionary of plant names. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Kelaidis, G. M. 2008. Hardy succulents. Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA
Lust, J. 1974. The Herb Book. Bantam Books, NY.
Rofe, A. 2012. Common houseleek (Sempervivum techtorum). Raw Edible Plants. http://rawedibleplants.blogspot.com/2012/04/common-houseleek-sempervivum-tectorum.html Accessed 11/25/19.
Plants for a Future. Sempervivum techtorum L. pfaf.org Accessed 11/25/19.