Sempervivum ‘houseleek’ has nothing to do with leeks, the vegetables you sometimes find in your house (specifically in the fridge, we’re guessing.)
That leek, scientific name Allium porrum, is from the genus of flowering plants that includes shallots, chives, leeks, garlic, onion, and all the other delicious aromatics that are familiar dinner ingredients.
This ‘leek’ on the other hand, is a succulent. One of the colourful, trendy, and easy to care for plants that you see in beautiful little displays like the one below –
If you’re looking for succulents to grow in your home, Sempervivum should be your first port of call. These stylish and undemanding plants bring flair to even the most mundane living spaces.
You may also see this plant called Hens and Chickens – something to which it bears even less resemblance than a leek. We’re not here to guess where this name came from or why it stuck, but we do have some excellent sempervivum care and growing tips for you in the following sections.
What is Sempervivum, aka ‘houseleek’?
As we’ve established, they’re nothing to do with leeks, hens, or chickens. They’re evergreen succulents whose name hints at their perennial nature (‘Sempervivum’ means ‘always alive’ in Latin – ‘Semper’ is always, ‘vivum’ is alive.
The plant has been of interest to herbalists through the ages for all manner of supposed health benefits, although nowadays it’s much more popular amongst gardeners. Its interesting visual characteristics are immediately inviting, and whether you decide to grow Sempervivum outdoors or in a container, you’re guaranteed a good show.
Types of Sempervivum
There are over forty plants in this family, covering a full rainbow of colour. There’s not space to introduce all the varieties here, so we’ve chosen a handful that have received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
Plants with the award demonstrate the following characteristics, making them good choices for beginner gardeners –
- Suited to ordinary use and not too fussy about conditions
- Readily available to buy in the UK
- “Of good constitution”
- Fairly stable in their colour and shape
- Mostly pest and disease resistant
Sempervivum / houseleek ‘Guillaumes’
This variety of Sempervivum is a perfect demonstration of the striking form and colour palette you can expect from the plant. Although colours may vary, they’ll almost always be as vibrant and engaging as the Guillaumes.
The plant is, by nature, mat-forming. That means it spreads out along the ground in dense mats, propagating through ‘offsets’ – nearly-grown plant babies that erupt into growth when they touch ground. Each spiky cluster is called a ‘rosette’, and the thick, sometimes waxy leaves hold the plant’s water supply.
Guillaumes’ rosettes grow about 2cm in diameter. The plant likes full sun, and can thrive in any aspect, exposed or sheltered. Aim for well-drained soil primarily made up of sand or loam. Like all Sempervivum, Guillaumes is naturally hardy thanks to their rugged North African, Middle Eastern, and Balkan heritage.
Sempervivum / houseleek ‘Tectorum’
The common houseleek, as this variety is known, has tons of nicknames including homewort, imbroge, poor Jan’s leaf, welcome-home-husband-however-drunk-you-be and more. It’s also named Bullock’s beard, Jupiter’s beard, and Jove’s beard – so we’re not really sure who it belongs to!
None of the names give much of a clue about the plant, though. None of them describe its green fading gracefully into deep red, or the attractive clusters of lightly-spiked leaves. Nor the complex colour palette that the plant provides year-round.
This is a great little Sempervivum that will make a great impression on any gardener. It’s just as unfussy as other varieties, but grows slightly larger in size – up to about 10cm.
Sempervivum / houseleek ‘pittoni’
Pittoni has bright green rosettes with intriguingly red-tipped leaves, bringing a completely different aesthetic to the table. And that’s what we love about Sempervivum – although they share common ground, each variety sings in such a different melody of colour. This allows for almost infinite combinations and configurations, all guaranteeing exciting and endearing colour displays.
Pittoni’s rosettes grow to about 5cm wide, and the plant enjoys the same conditions as other varieties.
Sempervivum / houseleek ‘arachnoideum’
The boffins amongst you may recognise the ‘arachno’ in this variety’s name as being indicative of spiders. Don’t worry, though: It’s not named for a tendency to attract these eight-legged critters into your house.
Rather, this houseleek variety is named after its striking cobwebbish aesthetic. The stringy white hairs at the tip of each head form a web around the spiky leaves, making an unusual and eye-catching visual contribution to any plant container.
Individual rosettes grow to about 3cm across, and like all Sempervivums, this variety is mat-forming. Expect to see dashes of red year-round, and a bit of pink.
How to grow Sempervivum
This variety of plant likes full sun, and well-drained soil. It’s relatively easy to care for in the UK because of its origins in demanding environments.
With Sempervivum, the one thing you want to look out for is overly wet winters. Although this plant can handle a lot, it’ll need a hand being sheltered from the chilly torrents we’re prone to get later in the year.
You can either cover the plant or bring it inside for a winter container holiday.
How to grow from seed
You can grow Sempervivum from seed. To do so, plant them in pots at least 5cm in diameter, push the seed gently below the surface, then leave to germinate somewhere well lit and at least 21°c for up to 5 weeks.
If all goes well, you’ll see some germination. In this case, just leave the plant to grow for a while, then move onto the next section.
If all doesn’t go well, which sadly is more likely with Sempervivum from seed, whack the pots in the fridge for a couple of weeks, then take them out and put them back in the well lit warm spot. Hopefully this time around you’ll see germination.
Due to how fiddly and unpredictable this process can be, a lot of people prefer to grow Sempervivum from offsets. This is essentially cloning the parent plant, and is a much more reliable way to grow houseleek.
How to plant Sempervivum
This plant likes a well-drained soil, as we’ve said. Sandy or loamy is best. It’s not a fussy flower, and will grow well in solitary pots, shared containers, flowerbeds, and even gravelly rock gardens.
Planting Sempervivums is as simple as filling a container with the right type of soil, placing the plant in the soil, then ensuring the roots are covered. You’ll want to compact the earth as well to give the plant a secure footing.
Let there be light! Sempervivums love the sunlight, and will do better the more they’re exposed to it.
If you’re planting Sempervivums in your garden, give them pride of place in the brightest spot. They’ll catch the eye of any visitors, and lend a tremendous visual element to your garden’s aesthetic.
How much to water Sempervivum
This plant doesn’t need much water at all. It hails from arid, desert environments after all. For the most part, occasional rain should cover your Sempervivum watering needs, but if you’re going through a drought (or you’re growing indoors), a little sprinkle every once in a while won’t go amiss.
Check the soil moisture with your finger before watering – a good couple of inches of soil should be mostly dry before you need to add more water.
Pests and diseases
There are a few pests that enjoy dining out on Sempervivum. One of them – the Sempervivum leaf miner – enjoys the plant so much that they’re named after it.
Sempervivum leaf miner
This hoverfly larva literally mines the leaves of a Sempervivum plant, to get at the good stuff inside. You’ll see limp, discoloured leaves, and if you examine more closely, you’ll find small maggots.
To control leaf miner larvae, just pick off and dispose of them when you find them.
Slugs and snails
Sadly your Sempervivum will find no reprieve from these common garden pests. Slugs and snails will treat themselves to a little nibble here and a little nibble there, eventually causing massive damage if left unchecked.
To control against slugs and snails, you can make a border of sharded glass, use poisons, or simply remove them manually. It all depends on how humane you’re feeling.
Sempervivum, can’t live without ‘em
We hope you enjoyed being introduced to Sempervivum, houseleek, hens and chicks, or whatever of their many names you prefer.
This plant is a real treat, visually and in terms of effort required to look after it. The growing and care tips in this guide will help you get started incorporating Sempervivum into your house, garden, patio, balcony, or any other outdoor space.
We hope you enjoy getting further acquainted!