Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
December, 2010
Regional Report

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These are not your grandma's hen and chicks, but they're just as easy to grow.

Friendly Succulents

Sempervivum is a fascinating family of succulent plants known as "Hen and Chicks." Everyone has seen this hardy, gray-leafed sempervivum, but there are dozens more. The common name comes from the way they propagate. As each plant, or hen, matures, it develops little plants, the chicks, at its base.

Leaf shapes and textures vary widely. Some are fat and pointed, others rounded and nearly flat. A fascinating group known as "arachnids" have hairs that look like a spider's web. No doubt the crown of white hairs evolved to protect the plant from some predator. Beautiful for the oddity, they have names like "cobweb button" that are completely descriptive.

Leaf colors range from green to shades of orange and red that often develop seasonally, depending on variety. Offsets, or chicks, begin appearing in the first year and the plants usually begin to bloom in the second or third year. When the flowers bloom on sempervivum, you'll think Dr. Seuss had a hand in their odd beauty. While the plants have a decidedly rosette form in tight clusters, the flowers pop up on tall stems. Pink, white, red, orange, even magenta tones are a shock, rising proudly to attract the pollinators that will keep the species going into future generations. The mother plant, spent from the effort of producing chicks and flowers, soon dies. Chicks can be removed and potted up at any time, but definitely should be separated when the Mother Hen's pot becomes crowded.

Easy to Grow
Succulent plants are people-friendly, needing only bright light, well-drained soil, occasional water and even less-frequent fertilizer to thrive. The ability to store water in their leaves gives most of these plants a fat-looking leaf quite different from ordinary green leaves. If a spot in your home has sunlight streaming through a window for even a few hours daily, succulents will thrive.

Mix a potting soil that has terrific drainage for indoor succulent culture. Blend a top quality potting mix plus generous amounts of finely ground bark and sharp sand, or use a specialty product made for succulents and cacti. Give succulents traditional clay pots, light gravel mulch, water every ten days and feed with a soluble fertilizer monthly. As an added bonus, fallen leaves will root and sprout tiny baby plants to increase your collection.

More Succulent Families
Many popular succulents, including sempervivum, belong to the Crassula, or Stonecrop family, perhaps best known for jade plants. However, there are 1400 species of Crassula, spread around the world in rather dry climates from Mexico to South Africa, Macaronesia and the Himalayas. No wonder there are crassulas that thrive in tropical climates and others that are hardy to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you like jade plants, look for kalanchoes and sedums. Kalanchoe is best known as a flowering plant sold in florist's shops or planted en masse in sandy soils. But other kalanchoes include mother of thousands, so named because each leaf sprouts tiny, viable plants along its edges. Many of us grow a big garden sedum called 'Autumn Joy,' but there are also tropical sedums, such as burro's tail, that can live happily in the smallest container. Echeverias as a group are hardy to about 25 degrees, forming rosettes as large as a foot wide and tall. Their leaves are often gray and waxy, some can go without water for months in summer without collapsing and some are shade tolerant. The diversity of this one family reflects the wide array of succulents. Whether indoors or out, large or small, succulents are plants anyone can grow, so long as they do not drown them with water. Grow some, set up a windowsill collection in a classroom or surprise a friend who lives in a nursing home with a plant group that is endlessly interesting to watch and honestly easy to love.

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