Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Going out with beauty good-by hen and chick

Hen & Chicks (Sempervivum sp) are among the easiest plants to grow, needing very little care, & usually difficult to fail. Yet now & then a new one will commit seppuku.

I bought a handful of unlabeled Semperviva & planted them here & there in pots and garden boxes. The habit most stores & nurseries have of selling mixed hybrids with no indication of what species or variety they are is a little annoying, but O well.

The one shown on this page loved its location & decided to bloom. Unfortunately, putting on such a fine display before having any chicks or developing a good root system will completely exhaust the plant & it will probably die soon after blooming.

Most of the time when a given rosette of leaves puts up one of these spectacular blooms, that particular hen dies when the task's completed, or gets so elongated & scruffy it has to be trimmed out of the mass. When there are lots of chicks coming along, & other hens, one faded rosette is hardly noticeable. But if it's just one hen, alas.

It's useless to cut off the stalk before it flowers because by the time the thick stalk erupts, the hen has already very likely passed the point of no return. So I will watch this beautiful display, and if the hen and chick passes, will have to say good-by.

When these plants do well, (as is more common than the fate of this particular example) it clumps into a ground cover with lots of chicks around the hen.

Old Time Medicinal & Other Uses

Sempervivum tectorum, Hen-and-chicks or Houseleek

The Latin botanical name has an historical reference. Charlemagne (742-814 A.D.) recommended that his subjects plant these hardy prolific plants on the roof of their houses to ward off lightening and fire. The leaves contain tannins and mucilage that are soothing to skin. It is used in the treatment of burns, skin wounds and infections.

The roman-greek scholar Dioscorides (Dioskurides) (~40-~90AD) mentioned the sempervivum in his work 'De materia medica' and recommended crushed leaves with wine to get rid of intestinal parasites. Cut leaves were used against warts, calluses, corns and insect stings - the juice was used to treat shingles and earache. As above the mashed leaves where used to treat burns and scalds.

'Naturalis Historiae' by Pliny the Elder is by far the best reference for uses of the Sempervivum. In countless passages he mentions the Sempervivum against articular gout, diarrhea, worms, stomach pain and more. The usage was either internal (juice), rubbing on the area of pain or simply applying parts of the plant on the body.

Pliny uses several names for one species, but comparisons with other ancient authors lead to a certainty for attributing to modern species names.


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