By Kathleen Hale, Member, The Herb Society of America
Everybody loves the story of someone ordinary, much like ourselves perhaps, who becomes a princess, a rock star, a famous and sought after celebrity. With apologies to Meghan Markle, the House Leek did it first.
Its botanical name Sempervivuns, “always alive,” hints at this dual nature. What could be more magical? But, at the same time, what could make it more appealing to the timid gardener? It is something that even the most forgetful caregiver cannot kill.
But the House Leek (also known as Hen and Chicks, Saint Patrick’s Cabbage and Welcome-Home-Husband-Though Never-So Drunk) promises so much more.
Other names link Sempervivuns with divinity, like Jupiter’s Beard (Jovibarba), and Thor’s Beard (Donnerbart). This might be the link with its more domestic names and uses: the House Leek was believed to protect the home from lightning. If you could establish a colony on your roof, it was wise to do so.
Modern brides have embraced the Sempervivuns as part of their wedding planning. Real plants are very dependable additions to table decorations, and lend a pretty, silvery, blue green backdrop for pretty much any color scheme. Artificial plants are astonishingly lifelike. And wedding cakes are now frequently topped with sprays of Hens and Chicks, modeled in fondant and frosting.
Sempervivuns has been grown for its reputed healing properties, which are much like those of aloe, which is somewhat resembles. Its mucilaginous, acidic sap has been used to soothe skin irritations and burns. When it produces its sprays of pink, or sometimes white, flowers it will attract pollinators. When it produces its first, luscious regrowth in Spring, it will be nibbled by mammals, but will quickly recover. Some varieties are crowned with an intricate networks of delicate web-like threads. Some have rosettes sheathed in velvet.
In the Language of Flowers, Sempervivuns is linked with “vivacity.” Historic herbalist Hildegard of Bingen promises something rather more. “If a man eats house leek who was healthy in his genital nature, he would be on fire with desire.” She also advises that, properly administered, it also restores hearing to the deaf, and thus is known as “Earwart”.
Unlike most succulents, Sempervivuns are sturdily able to survive frost, and can be grown in USDA zones 3 to 11. Where they have adequate root drainage, they can live up to their botanical name and propagate through side shoots into large, dense mats. Where they are very happy, they grow wild. And this has led to the wholesale theft of roadside, hillside colonies of free range Sempervivuns for resale to the Asian domestic market. California coastal highways are being denuded, and the plants smuggled to Japan, China and Korea, where they are a high-status houseplant.
Those of us who have painstakingly nestled baby Sempervivuns plants onto sopping wet sphagnum moss wreaths could tell these aspiring Asian home gardeners that they’re in for a challenge. The paradox lies in how difficult it can be to get a plant that thrives on neglect to flourish indoors. It has a mind of its own, and that pretty much sums up the nature of something both domestic and divine.