Every gardener should be able to find space for a plant that is drought-proof, evergreen, propagates itself, grows well in sparse, poor soil, has interesting flowers, tolerates zero temperatures and has more than 3,000 named cultivars.
This marvel is the Sempervivum, also known as hens and chickens or house leeks.
An alpine succulent from the Crassulacaea family, it originated far above sea level in mountainous regions of islands in the Mediterranean or other parts of central and southern Europe. About 50 species have been identified, with a wide range of forms, sizes and colors.
The leaves form a rosette shape, and when grown in full sun may vary from green to brown, yellow, orange, pink and red. In shade, they will remain green. The leaves may be matt or glossy, some with a waxy bloom. There are cultivars that grow fine, white hairs, just like the ones that appear in my comb, while others grow silvery bristles along the leaf margins and tips.
Blossoms usually are yellow, pink or red and star-shaped. Sempervivum are monocarpic, meaning each rosette can only flower once, and then dies. This disadvantage is offset by the large numbers of offsets they continually produce.
Easy to grow in most soil types, the plants will do well in troughs, planters and rock gardens, even in crevices in a stone wall with a modicum of soil. The true house leek, Sempervivum tectorum actually grows on cottage roofs in parts of northern Europe, and was believed to protect the dwelling from lightning and thunderstorms.
Sometimes a large patch of hens and chicks will take over a neglected patch of ground, and there are attractive uses for the surplus because they do well inside. Because they can go for a long time without water, they make excellent plants for a terrarium, and so many varieties are available that a wide range of colors can be included.
It is possible to create a living wreath suitable for indoors or outside, with little skill needed. I have a book, "The Living Wreath" by Teddy Colbert, published in 1996 by Gibbs Smith Publisher, that explains how to create 50 different wreaths using live plants. This is a nice book to look through on a cold winter day, but there are a few drawbacks to following the directions and actually creating a beautiful wreath.
The principal one is the author wants to sell you her wreath form. I'm sure it is ideal for the purpose and efficient, but also very expensive. It is made of three wire wreath forms wired together and filled with potting soil, the whole thing wrapped in sheet moss, which is bound with copper wire.
I think I can make my own version, which will not be as durable, but should work.
I am going to use a grape vine or a straw form, and cut holes every few inches with a sharp pruner and insert the smallest peat pots in the spaces. Filled with fine potting soil, and kept regularly watered, I think it will work.
I may need to use some of the copper wire Teddy recommends to hold the thing together, and if I use enough plant material, the wire will be covered.
In addition to the Sempervivum that suggested the idea to me, I plan to use any other succulents such as sedums and crassula I come across. I will report progress here, and even take a picture if it is successful. I have just bought a digital camera, and aside from the fact I need to take a course in technical writing in order to comprehend the online manual, I am hoping for better pictures than the blurry efforts that come from my phone.
Because semper vivum is Latin for "always living," I have great hopes.
Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program. Contact her at email@example.com.