When the weather is cold and frightful, we gardeners can't help worrying whether some of our borderline-hardyplants will survive the winter. Plants in above-ground containers are particularly exposed and vulnerable to damage from freeze-thaw cycles.
But then there are the shallow containers filled with hens and chicks (Sempervivum). When it comes to winter survival, they are in a category of their own. Year after year, they sail through a Midwest winter planted in small pots, troughs, hollow logs, old boots and other whimsical containers. I long ago learned not to worry about winter getting the best of my hens and chicks.
Native to the high mountains of Europe, these hardy alpine plants are accustomed to dealing with harsh, rugged weather. They can look after themselves: In winter, the outer leaves wither and cup over the centers of the rosettes, like a protective blanket. If there is a cover of snow, so much the better. If not covered, the little 3 to 4-inch-tall beauties add winter interest to the garden.
In summer, these succulent plants need plenty of sunlight and excellent drainage. Avoid planting them in clay soil. Shallow containers and quick-draining potting soil are perfect. Rock gardens or crevices in a rock wall are also favored spots for these alpine beauties with their interesting array of colors and textures.
Hens and chicks can be green, wine-red, orange, gray or purple, with some color variation by the seasons. They may have hairy or smooth leaves that are pointed or rounded. Truth is, there are enough variations to keep a collector happy for a lifetime.
Hens and chicks have a very long history as garden plants, with their popularity rising and falling with the times. Once grown on thatched roofs in Europe to ward off lightning strikes and evil spirits, they were called houseleeks.
The Latin name Sempervivum literally means "live forever" or "always living." It's an apt name for such a resilient plant, although individual plants don't actually live forever, of course. Instead, each grows as a low rosette for several years before sending up a long flower spike and then dying. But by the time the mother hen dies, there are a dozen or so little chicks at the base ready to fill the void. Over time, the plants can form a thick mat.
Want more pots of hens and chicks, or some to share with friends? Just pick up a baby rosette and set in on top of little container of potting soil. The "chick" will take care of the rest, eventually becoming a hen with its own brood.