Hen And Chicks Plant Care: Succulent Sweethearts

We see nurturing mothers in many animal species, but what about plants? As it turns out, lots of parent plants have close relationships with their offspring, helping and encouraging them to grow up. A classic example is the hen and chicks plant. This low-lying succulent takes on a mother hen persona, keeping her chicks close until they’re mature enough to take on the world by themselves.

Besides being a cool example of family relationships in the plant world, hens and chicks plants are fun to grow. Their perky rosettes spread quickly across the ground, making an excellent succulent ground cover. They thrive in rock gardens and otherwise uninhabitable soil. Hens and chicks plants are also very sturdy. I’ve accidentally stepped on mine a few times and they were unbothered.

It’s not often that you see succulent plants fit for cold climates. This baby (and mother) can survive winters well below freezing. It’s no wonder that hens and chicks plants are so popular in northern states. So if you’re looking for a hardy groundcover with a warmhearted character, why not start your own little family of hens and chicks?

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Quick Care Guide

Hen and chicks plant is a lovely succulent to grow. Source: GlennFleishman

Common Name Hen and chicks plant, hens and chicks, common houseleek, homework, devil’s beard, St. Patrick’s cabbage, hen widdies
Scientific Name Sempervivum tectorum (common name shared with other species)
Family Crassulaceae family
Height & Spread 6 inches tall, 3 feet wide
Light Full sun
Soil Rocky, poor, well-draining soil
Water Sparse yet deep watering
Pests & Diseases Aphids, mealybugs, crown rot, rust

All About Hen And Chicks Plant

Chicks emerging from a henChicks will grow on offshoots from the hen, then produce roots. Source: the_alien_experience

It’s tricky to nail down exactly what species the hens and chicks succulent is because it’s been cultivated and bred so much. Most hens and chicks are in either the Sempervivum (meaning “live forever” in Latin) or Jovibarba family, both of which have similar care requirements. Other genuses with species of this name are Sedum, Echeveria, and Bergenia. Since the general care is the same, for simplicity’s sake we’ll refer specifically to Sempervivum tectorum. 

S. tectorum has a lot of common names besides ‘hen and chicks’. The most well-known is ‘common houseleek’. You may also hear this plant go by ‘homewort’, ‘devil’s beard’, or ‘St. Patrick’s cabbage’. The name that takes the cake, though, is ‘welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk’ – a wild moniker shared with Sedum acre.

Sempervivum plants originate from Southern Europe and Northern Africa, where the high elevations helped them evolve their cold-hardiness. It only grows up to 6 inches tall, but hens and chick plants spread 3 feet or more!

Each dense, round rosette is made of light green, pointed leaves with reddish-purple tips. Though similar in appearance to echeveria succulents, the leaves are a bit softer and more flexible. Another identifying characteristic of hens and chicks is short, white hairs along the leaf edges. This is called a ciliate margin and gives the rosettes a slight fuzzy appearance.

The chicks grow out on stolons – thick stems with sparse leaves. Similar to the stolons are the flower shoots, though they have even thicker stems and are lined with lots of flat leaves. The foot-tall shoots are topped with groups of many-petalled, star-shaped flowers, usually in white and pink-red. Each flower has a distinctive, round, yellow center.

The life cycle is pretty simple for hens and chicks plants. Hens send out chick-tipped stolons that cluster tightly around their mother plant. As they mature, the stolons extend and the chicks grow their own roots. The hen provides nutrients through the stolon to support the chick’s growth. When the chicks are established and ready to “move out”, the stolon withers away and the chicks are on their own. They’ll become hens themselves, producing their own babies.

After 2-3 years, a mature rosette will start flowering in the summer. The shoot is jokingly called a rooster and grows out of the center of the rosette. After producing seeds, the mother plant dies (this is a monocarpic plant). However, her progeny continues to thrive so you can barely tell that the original rosette is gone. 

In the winter, hens and chick stop growing and go dormant. The outer leaves may turn brown during this time, but don’t worry. They’re simply saving energy and protecting the inner rosettes. In the spring, when warm weather returns, the plant will snap back into action.

Sempervivum is deer and rabbit resistant, but not poisonous to animals or humans. In fact, the leaves are sometimes eaten or used as an aloe vera substitute for burned skin. It’s easy to grow hens and chicks indoors or outdoors. They pair well with sedum and other succulents.

One last fun fact is that the pink color on these succulents comes from the sunlight (with the exception of fully-colored varieties, like ‘Terracotta Baby’). Just like human skin produces melanin to protect against the sun, succulents adjust their colors to prevent sunburn. So, this coloring is technically a sign of stress, but it doesn’t hurt the plant. If you’re wanting a bit more color in your hens and chicks plants, position them in direct sunlight (keep an eye on the temperature though!).

Planting Hens And Chicks

Hen and chicks plant as ground coverHens and chicks will spread to fill in all available space over time. Source: Bob Mical

You can grow hens and chicks succulents from seed or starts. The seeds are planted inside in the fall so they can sprout over winter. Most nurseries and gardening centers will have these starts ready to buy come springtime. You’ll want to get them planted before summer starts and the temperature goes up. However, they must be planted after the last frost.

Place your new plants in full sun, with afternoon shade in hot climates. The potting mix can be gravelly and poor as long as it’s well-draining. You can easily grow hens and chicks in a pot, whether indoors or out. If growing hens in a container inside, ensure that the proper growing conditions are met (especially adequate sunlight!).

Plant hens right up to the base of the rosette, firmly tamping down the soil. Keep the soil dry for at least the first week after planting so the succulent can heal any broken roots. Then, begin to water normally (which, for succulents, is very sparsely).

If you’re planting your own seeds, use a well-draining, sandy soil in a shallow growing tray. Sprinkle the seeds, cover them with very little soil, and mist them with a spray bottle. Keep the seeds moist until they’ve sprouted. Then, apply a light layer of fine gravel to act as mulch. Slowly cut back on watering as the seedlings mature, always keeping the leaves dry. You can transplant the new, green babies outside or to a pot when they have a few leaves.

Care

Top view of chicks and hensA top-down look at some lovely hens and chicks. Source: Allie’s.Dad

Hens and chicks are crazy low-maintenance and don’t want to be meddled with. However, you still have to set them up for success. Here are the conditions you must meet for your hen plant to begin thriving on neglect.

Sun and Temperature

As we mentioned, full sun is a must for your hen to thrive. Hens and chicks prefer temperatures of 65-75°F, but will easily survive outside of that range. The recommended growing zones are 3-8, but hens and chick plant will grow in hotter areas under the right conditions. 

When the weather gets too hot or cold, the plant will go dormant and stop growing. If your zone is on the hotter side, ensure your hen and chick plants have some partial shade in the afternoon. This will discourage them from their semi-dormant state.

Water and Humidity

Thanks to their ability to store water, sempervivum plants are drought-tolerant and need very sparse watering. Wait until the potting mix has been completely dry for a few days. Then, water it deeply and wait for it to dry again. Keep all above-ground growth as dry as possible in order to prevent pests and infections. During the winter, when the plants are dormant, drastically cut down on watering (once a month or less).

Like all succulents, this plant is in much more danger of being overwatered than underwatered. In fact, unless your garden is in a literal desert, you probably won’t have to water the mature plant at all! 

Soil

The key to growing healthy succulents is excellent drainage in the garden. When the growing medium holds onto moisture, the roots get waterlogged and start to rot. So, you should choose a soil that’s on the sandy side. If you only have loamy soil, mix in some perlite to improve the soil drainage. If you’re growing this green succulent in a container, make sure it has good drainage holes.

Hens and chicks succulents aren’t very demanding of nutrients, so they can grow in poor soil. You can add organic matter to improve the drainage, but the nutrients likely won’t be needed. As for soil acidity, sempervivum is flexible but prefers a neutral pH.

Fertilizing

You can take fertilizer off your gardening list – it’s not needed here! The chicks hens plant doesn’t require extra nutrients. If you really want to give it a boost though, use a slow-release, balanced garden fertilizer when the plant first comes out of dormancy.

Pruning

You’ll rarely if ever need to prune your hens and chicks plants. The only time it’s really needed is when the mother plant and her offspring are in a small space like a pot or rocky garden. Since it can’t grow out, the plant will start to grow upwards. You’ll need to thin out the chicks to keep them low to the ground (and then propagate the cuttings!). You can also transplant established plants to a container.

You may be tempted to cut down emerging flower stalks so the rosette won’t die, but it doesn’t work that way. Whether the seeds make it to maturity or not, the rosette will always fade after flowering.

Propagation

If you haven’t propagated a succulent before, the hens and chicks succulent is a great place to start! The cuttings will practically propagate themselves, which is perfect for beginners. Succulents should be propagated when the plant is actively growing. Propagating hens during dormancy is the equivalent of shaking someone awake in the middle of the night – they won’t be very alert!

Start by finding some baby rosettes that have begun to grow out from the mother plant. If you look closely, you should see some roots emerging from the base of the rosette and even the stolon. Only propagate plants that are healthy and aren’t currently producing flowers.

Using clean gardening shears, cut the stolon, ensuring all roots are on the chick’s end. Replant the cutting, including the stolon, in dry soil. Leave the cutting alone for 3-7 days and then begin watering like normal. It’s important that you leave the soil dry for short stretches of time so the roots grow deeply in pursuit of water.

Troubleshooting

Hens starting to flowerAs they flower, the hens produce tall spikes out of their center. Source: SafeTinspector

Chicks and hens plants lead easy lives. They rarely have growing problems in the garden and aren’t popular with insects. On the off chance that you do encounter some issues with these plants, here’s a quick guide.

Growing Problems

The biggest threat to any plant in the Crassulaceae family is overwatering. When they get too much moisture, the plants quickly become soft and soggy. They begin to rot, which invites all sorts of bacteria. Often, it starts with root rot and isn’t immediately noticeable above the surface. By the time a gardener discovers the rot, the roots are destroyed and the remaining healthy growth can only be saved by propagation.

Always err on the side of underwatering your hens and chick. The plant will bounce back much faster from being underwatered than overwatered. If you accidentally give too much water, give the plant longer than usual to dry out before watering again. If the soil is completely waterlogged, transplant your succulent to dry soil.

Another possible problem is bolting. A plant’s main goal in life is to reproduce, so if a young hen plant is put in a stressful environment, it’ll flower as quickly as possible so it can reproduce before it dies. To prevent this, baby your mother plant while it’s getting established. Ensure that it has the right amount of water and is in suitable weather. Let it produce a good number of chicks before switching to hands-off mode.

Pests

Garden insects rarely pay attention to hen and chick plants, but aphids may occasionally stop by. They’ll congregate on the leaves and suck out the plant’s juices. Aphids secrete a sooty honeydew that invites ants to the garden, so they need to be taken care of ASAP. You can remove aphids with insecticidal soap, neem oil, or predatory insects like ladybugs or lacewings.

Aphids aren’t the only chicken-plant vampires out there. Mealybugs also enjoy succulent juice and will attack hen and chick plants. You may recognize them by their cottony nests and honeydew similar to aphids. You can control mealybugs the same way as aphids, with the addition of mycoinsecticides. 

Diseases

We mentioned that too much water hurts succulents by inviting bacteria. One of these is crown rot – a fungus that affects all sorts of other plants, including trees. Crown rot doesn’t just attack the crown of the plant, but the roots and base as well. After being infected, the plant will rot mostly at the soil level and lose its color. Sempervivum can also be affected by endophyllum rust, which dots the leaves with orange spermogonium (reproductive areas of fungi).

These diseases must be caught early on or, ideally, prevented entirely. At the first sign of rot or rust, immediately remove the diseased part of the plant from the garden. Since the crown rot fungus resides in the soil, apply a fungicide or transplant the sempervivum. Both rot and rust are greatly prevented by keeping the plant dry and the soil moisture low.

Frequently Asked Questions

Hens and chicksHens and chicks are pretty resilient plants overall. Source: limegreen367

Q: Do hens and chicks survive winter?

A: Yes, they’re some of the cold-hardiest garden succulents out there!

Q: How fast do hens and chicks spread?

A: You’ll usually get 1-3 generations of hens and chicks in one growing season. They can spread out to 3 feet wide in an outdoor garden.

Q: Can hen and chicks grow indoors?

A: Yes, as long as they have full sun and enough room to spread out.

Q: Do hens and chicks plants like sun or shade?

A: Sun! In hot climates though, they benefit from partial shade in the heat of the afternoon.

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