My last post (Houseleek, Jupiter’s Beard, Sempervivum tectorum Part 1) described the characteristics of the houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum. This post talks of its healing history and folklore.
The Ideal Houseplant of the Ancients
Sempervivum means “live forever.” The species epithet of the common houseleek, tectorum, means “of roofs.” Its odd common name, houseleek, also means “of roofs.” Leek (laec, lic, and other spellings) was an Anglo-Saxon word for plant. Thus, houseleek is “house plant.” What that meant 1,000 years ago was “the plant on the house.” Two things have changed so that “house plant” has a different meaning today. First, most people do not put sod on their roofs. A sod roof was common across Northern Europe historically (and can still be found if you look). Sod was readily available and provided good insulation. Regular rain kept the plants of the sod roof healthy. You could certainly grow houseleeks there if you wanted to. Secondly, only rather recently has it been possible to grow plants inside the house. For plants to survive indoors in the winter required both clear glass windows and decent heating, technologies that developed in the 17th century. How quickly people took their plants indoors isn’t clear to me. Probably almost immediately. A search on the history of house plants credits the Babylonians with the first ones, but in Babylonia, Egypt and Rome, the temperatures rarely reach freezing, so their house plants were plants in pots, relatively easily taken indoors on the two coldest nights of the year. In England and Germany, however, the combination of cold winters and windows that were either wide open or closed by shutters meant they couldn’t overwinter plants indoors, let alone have them grow and flower like my African violets, until glass and interior heat were available.
But why would you put houseleeks on your sod roof? Because people believed they would protect them from lightning. Likewise houseleeks were believed to offer fire protection. It is possible that houseleek’s succulent leaves retard fires but there was more to it.
First, the Roman name for houseleeks was Jove’s (Jupiter’s) beard, Iovis barbam. Jupiter, king of the gods and king of the sky, was pictured with a beard, unusual in a culture where men shaved. The Romans were reminded of the face of Jupiter with his beard when they encountered houseleeks growing in the Alps and Pyrenees, and named the plant Jupiter’s beard. Jupiter cast lightning. Lightning was a terrifying force, even more mysterious to the Romans than to us since they knew nothing of electricity. If a plant that looked like Jupiter offered any protection, they were for it. That sounds pretty doubtful, but we have it in a decree from the Emperor Charlemagne (720-814). A talented leader who unified and Romanized of a large part of northern Europe, Charlemagne decreed: Et ille hortulanus habeat super domum suam Iovis barbam. (And the gardener shall have Jove’s beard growing on his house. Capitulare de villis, about 795, LXX.) Protect your house from lightning with houseleeks on the roof.
Thor’s beard is another common name for houseleeks. Thor was the god of storms and lightning among Germanic peoples, including Scandinavians. However, that name does not seem to go back very far in history and although common houseleek is currently found across northern Europe, it is native only to the mountains of middle and southern Europe. Charlemagne used the name Jove’s beard before the Viking Era (first raid 845) so naming it for a god of lightning probably began in Rome.
Medicinal Uses through Time
Houseleeks have been a household medicine for centuries. Writers of the 17th century such as Gerarde and Culpeper, used it for any affliction that called for cooling, “inward and outward.” Northern Europeans used them to treat burns and skin abrasions the same way southern Europeans used vera aloe (Aloe vera), which is much less winter-hardy. This fits the mythology; if the plant prevents lightning and fires, they reasoned that it treats injuries from fires as well. Being evergreen, houseleeks could be grabbed (off the roof?) to put on a burn all year long. The juices in their succulent leaves make a comforting and antibiotic paste that soothes burns. The leaves are easily pressed into juices used as tonics. The juice contains tannins, and has anti-oxidant effects, but there is presently no experimental confirmation of the efficacy of medicine from houseleeks.
Even if you like vera aloe better for burns, houseleeks are lovely little plants.
Capilulare de villis translation: University of Leicester http://www.le.ac.uk/hi/polyptyques/capitulare/trans.html Accessed 11/26/19.
Coombes, A. J. 1985. Dictionary of plant names. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Culpeper, N. 1652. Culpeper’s complete herbal.
http://openlibrary.org/books/OL23292047M/Culpeper’s_complete_herbal Accessed 11/26/19.
Gerarde, J. 1597. The herball or generall historie of plantes. http://caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/gerarde/high/IMG_0706.html. Stuber. 2007. Wageningen UR Library. Accessed 11/26/19.
webMD. houseleek. WebMD.com https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-515/houseleek Accessed 11/26/19.