I love hens and chicks. Although the plant certainly bears no resemblance to a fowl of any sort, it does tell you about the way the plant grows. A central hen lays a small chick beside it.
Hens and chicks proper name is Sempervivum meaning always (semper) I live (vivum) in Latin and that is pretty accurate – as long as the soil isn’t too water-logged. Hens and chicks take drought and are seen growing in pockets in rockeries all over Seattle. They form a dense, weed-excluding mat – another reason to love them.
All sempervivums have a similar look, regardless of species or cultivar. They may vary a bit – darker or paler green, all or partly red or maybe some hairs – but once you know what a Sempervivum looks like you’ll always know it (okay unless you run across an aeonium). Let’s just say if it grows outside in the winter in Seattle and it looks like a Sempervivum it is a Sempervivum.
In Britain, hens and chicks are called houseleeks, because they grow on houses. In the olden days they were actually considered to be a good thing to have on your house as they were thought to protect against fire and lightning, which makes some sense. A roof covered in fleshy succulent houseleeks seems a lot less likely to catch on fire than thatch, although the number required for actual protection would be excessive. Apparently, Charlemagne ordered all his subjects’ houses to be planted with houseleeks as protection – seems like it is carrying imperial micro-management way too far.
Sempervivums propagate themselves both vegetatively (the chicks) and via flowers. The hen extends itself several inches in a very alien-like fashion and the flowers form at the end of the stalk, then regretfully, the stalk dies, leaving an ugly dead hen in the midst of your planting.