Most gardeners are familiar with the common houseleek, or hens and chicks. They are a tough little succulent that embodies the old commercial catchphrase..."It takes a licking and keeps on ticking." They are just about impossible to kill, which makes them an excellent choice for new gardeners or low maintenance beds and containers.

This little succulent is native to the dry slopes of southern European mountain ranges like the Alps and has been a familiar house-hold plant for over a thousand years. It was thought to protect inhabitants from thunder and lightning strikes, so was a common sight planted on thatch and sod roofs. In realty, this was an excellent choice, because the fleshy leaves contain quite a bit of moisture which makes it hard for fire to catch and burn.

ImageIts botanical name Sempervivum tectorum is an easy one to understand. In Latin, Semper means 'always' and vivum means 'living'. Tectorum means 'of roofs'', so this is an always living plant that has significance to roofs. The 'leek' in the common name 'houseleek' derives from an old Anglo-Saxon word leac which simply translates as 'plant'. So house leacs were houseplants, except there weren't any glass windows, so the modern-day definition of plants grown indoors wasn't applicable. These were simply plants that were grown around the house.

ImageAlong with being hard to kill and a natural fire barrier, houseleeks were also used medicinally. The fleshy leaves were split and applied to burns and rashes much like Aloe vera was in the New World. Taken internally, it was a treatment for thrush and intestinal disorders, but in larger doses was an emetic (induced vomiting.) Somehow, they were included in love potion recipes too, which seems to me an unusual way to win over your true love. Growing houseleeks around the home were also thought to ward off witches and evil spirits.

Sempervivum tectorum is a happy plant in well-drained rock gardens and containers. Freezing temperatures don't faze it. The only thing it hates is wet feet and it will rot if there is too much moisture. Plant it in an area that receives plenty of sun. It isn't terribly picky about soil and can exist with practically none, although given a bit of humus, they will grow happily and reproduce quickly.

ImageThis plant reproduces by sending out little fleshy runners that produce a baby plant at the end. The 'mother' plant with the smaller babies surrounding it is how the common name 'hens and chickens' came about and the various sizes of the plants in a grouping is very attractive, either in the garden or in a container. To transplant, simply detach one of the runners with a 'chick' at the end and pin it in its new home until roots appear.

ImageForgetful gardeners will be happy to note that this plant can survive long periods of neglect. They may wither a bit, but if given a drink, they'll bounce right back with no ill effects. They make great plants for vacation homes and for gardeners with hectic work schedules. There are a number of cultivars available and some even have an unusual cobweb covered surface. They are generally very inexpensive and often a friend or neighbor will simply hand you a few 'chicks' if asked. Great for new gardeners, lazy gardeners and busy gardeners. This plant is an excellent choice for all.