I’ve been fascinated with cacti and succulents since I was a kid. They’re always odd-looking, and sometimes they reward you with beautiful flowers.



One of the easiest to grow is Sempervivum tectorum. My mother called it “hen-and-chicks.” This refers (I assume) to the plant’s growing habit: there’s generally a fat rosette in the middle of a planting, surrounded by its children, which peek out like happy faces. Sometimes the “hen” puts out a long chicken-neck blooming stalk in midsummer. The plant can deal with dry climates and wet climates; as with many succulents, if the weather goes the wrong way, the plant simply quiets down for a while and stops growing. As soon as conditions improve, however, it bounces back.



The ancients believed it protected a house from lightning and sorcery, and even planted it on their (thatched / peat) roofs. (“Tectorum,” its species name, means “of the roof.” Charlemagne recommended that his subjects plant it on their roofs, to protect themselves from various evils.) In England and Wales the plant is called “houseleek,” literally “the house plant.” Old botanicals and herbals say that its juice can be used to alleviate or cure a long list of ailments: fever, erysipelas (does anyone get erysipelas these days?), dysentery, thrush, burns, scrofulous ulcerations, corns, warts, neuralgia, migraines, shingles, and insomnia.



In brief: it’s a sweet benevolent plant that likes to live where people live, and seems to get along with people very well.



And it has more common names than any plant I’ve heard of: Thor’s beard, devil’s beard, sengreen, thunderplant, St. Patrick’s Cabbage, and a dozen more.



The best of these, and the longest (for the knowledge of which I thank Richard Mabey) is “Welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk.”



Now where do you suppose that name came from?


About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

7 Responses to Hen-and-chicks

  1. starproms says:

    I love this plant too and yes I have seen it growing in thatched rooves.

    • Partner swore that he’d never seen it before! I have a potted one in the house (I intend to give it to his sister in Boston, to plant in her garden), and our neighbors have a big planting of them. I dragged him over to look at them.

      • starproms says:

        Some people just don’t ‘see’ plants or remember their names or anything about them. To people who love plants, that seems incredible, doesn’t it.

      • I agree. If I don’t know the name of a plant in the garden – or even on the roadside – I want to know. It drives Partner a little crazy, because I’m always going over to look more closely at plants I don’t recognize, or turn their leaves over to give them a closer look, so that I can look them up later.

  2. My Gramma called the flower a “rooster”.

  3. My Gramma called the flower a “rooster”.

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