Hen and Chicks Succulents

Forget proper Latin names of plants; this never-ending debate among horticulturists and botanists gets thrown out the window when it comes to common or local names for plants. Case in point: Hens and chicks succulents.
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That is what most home gardeners around the English-speaking world call Sempervivum, a genus of succulent plants that is very popular garden in containers and rock gardens throughout the world. Because of their fleshy leaves, they can tolerate extreme droughts; most will simply rot if kept too wet for too long. Many are also cold-hardy enough to survive outdoors through temperatures that drop well below zero. They grow does best in well-drained, rocky soils and full sun to light shade.

And it is easier to say hen and chicks than the Latin name, and much more descriptive, based on how mature rosette or “hen” plants are surrounded by many smaller offsets or “chicks” - little plants that grow on short stems at the base of the larger plant. They can spread quite rapidly as the hens get larger and start to develop their own. 

This ability to grow new plants around older ones is not unique to Sempervivums; Aloe, Agave, Haworthia, Yucca, Sansevieria, and Echeveria (called Mexican hen and chicks) produce small plants, often called pups, from their bases.

Another Twist to the Name

There is another story to why these plants are called hen and chicks: The ability of leaves of larger plants, when shed or broken off, to grow entire new plantlets from their stem ends. Anyone who has ever had a few leaves fall onto potting soil has seen this.

Other commonly-grown plants that do this include jade (Crassula) and ghost plant (Graptopetalum); this is how many gardeners share their plants with others. Some unique forms of Kalanchoe are called “alligator tears” or “mother of thousands” for their ability to grow new plants along the edges or at tips of mature leaves.

Propagating Hen and Chicks

The fastest way to get new plants from Sempervivum plants is to gently pull or cut small plants from the base of older ones, getting a bit of stem attached if possible. Set them into moist potting soil that has some coarse sand, perlite, pumice, or grit added for better drainage. Allow the plants to dry for a day or two to heal before watering. Place them in bright, indirect light for a few days or a couple of weeks, then water gently as needed without keeping the plants wet.

A way to get a lot of plants more quickly is to simply twist off plump, mature leaves and lay them atop moist potting soil or stick them stem-end into the soil; within weeks an entire new plant will form and begin to grow rapidly.  

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