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Sempervivum (sem-per-VEEV-um) (Hens & Chicks, Semps, Houseleeks) are beautiful outdoor succulents prized for their charming appearance and extremely resilient nature. They resemble an unfurled rose with seasonal blushes of colors and can form dense mats that accent gardens and arrangements. Regardless of droughts, deep freezes, and poor soil, Sempervivum grow easily and will brighten any planting with eye-catching colors, forms, and textures.
- Colors: Many Sempervivum can change colors significantly through the seasons - you might not recognize them from one month to the next. For instance, the three pictures below are all of the same plant, S. 'Saturn'. They put on a show of reds, blues, purples, bronzes, and more, sometimes with two-tone shading or sharply contrasting leaf tips. NOTE: If you want more consistent year-round color, consider Sempervivum heuffelii.
- Form: Rosettes range from 0.25” to 10” in diameter. ‘Hens & Chicks’ references the way a mother rosette sends out new offsets on stolons, which leads to dense colonies that can spread into a ground cover mat.
- Foliage: Leaves can be glossy, velvety, webbed, or tufted. Some cultivars are also lined with fine cilia that make them appear furry.
- Flowers: Sempervivum are monocarpic; after multiple years (typically 2-5), a rosette “hen” will send up a bloom stalk and open delicate, star-shaped flowers of pink, red, or yellow. Blooms can reach over 2 feet high and last for 2-4 weeks. This process marks the end of a hen’s life, but the “chicks” surrounding it will survive and grow into the vacated space. More info.
- Light: In most climates, morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal for Sempervivum. They grow well in a wide range of light conditions, but at temperatures over 85F, extra shade will help them look their best. These tough plants can tolerate high temperatures or full sun, but preferably not both at the same time. More info.
- Soil: Coming from alpine habitats, Sempervivum prefer a lean, gritty soil like cactus/succulent potting mix or sandy loam. No fertilizer is necessary, but applying a slow-release, low-Nitrogen (5-10-10) fertilizer in the spring will encourage faster growth.
- Water: Sempervivum thrive with deep, infrequent watering when time is given for the soil to fully dry between soakings. Frequency will vary by location; start with about 2-3 times a week to establish young plants, 1-2 times a month for mature plants in the growing season, 1-2 times a month in the winter, and no water if the temperature is below freezing. For container plantings, we recommend using pots with drainage holes. More info.
- Hardiness: Semps are ideal for succulent lovers in most regions, as they are frost hardy down to -20F (zone 5). They overwinter best protected under a blanket of snow, but using clear covers and bringing containers under shelter will help prevent rot in snow-free areas. More info.
- Propagation: Sempervivum do not require any propagation maintenance, but a gardener looking to transplant and multiply their colonies can easily dig up rosettes or cut new offsets from stolons and plant them in partial sun with well-draining soil to re-establish.
Notes from the nursery
We love Sempervivum. After all, they’re the succulents that got us started over two decades ago, and they continue to be our most popular plants to this day. These “hens and chicks” have been good to us over the years, so we’re confident they’ll be good for you too!
By picking a spot with sufficient light and good drainage, growing them becomes a rewarding, low-effort experience. Even if something does go wrong, they are forgiving growers and will often revive (here's how). That’s how they got the Latin name Sempervivum, which means “always alive.”
For more information, check out this excellent book by hybridizer Kevin Vaughn: Sempervivum: A Gardener’s Perspective on the Not-So-Humble Hens-and-Chicks.