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Hens and chicks plant

A hens and chicks (sempervivum) plant.

This week, I want to talk about a group of plants that has always fascinated me: hens and chickens. I got to thinking about them this morning, when a local gardener called with a bunch of questions. I didn’t have all the answers, so I said I would look into it and my Friday column would be about them.

But before that, I need to tell you about the Philadelphia Flower Show. It starts tomorrow and runs for about two weeks. Just nine years from now, the Horticultural Society of Philadelphia will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the show. Can you imagine anything like a flower show in the United States running for 200 years?

This year’s theme is “The Wonder of Water.” I can just imagine how beautiful the flower gardens are and what spectacular water features there will be. The promo materials say that spectators “will be transported to the rainforest” while at the same time learning how to garden responsibly with water at home. They are saying that the highlight of the exhibits will be a 25-foot waterfall at the show’s entrance. There will be five tiers of water all rushing down to a pool below. Along each tier will be cascading flowers, making a rainbow of colors. That entryway garden will be made up of some 4,500 plants. Nearby will be a huge pool holding four or five Victoria water lilies; their leaves get to 5 feet across. There: Have I whet your appetite enough to entice you to visit Philadelphia next week? Alas, I will not be there in body this year, but certainly in spirit. I try to make the trip every two or three years. Is it a popular flower show? Well, last year 250,000 people thought so, and they did not even feel crowded. That is how huge it is.

Now, let’s talk about hens and chickens, sometimes called hens and chicks. In the Carolinas, they are called hens and biddies. Although closely related, let us not confuse them with the tender succulents that have become so popular in recent years as indoor houseplants. Not only are we growing them on our windowsills and in dish gardens with several varieties in each, we are cutting them and using them in table arrangements. And, last fall, Jessica made one of the most beautiful bridal bouquets I have ever seen. It was made entirely of green succulents with shadings of pink and cream. Unfortunately, these types will not tolerate our winters. But those hens and chicks will. And, with care and selection, you can have a rainbow of color all through the good weather and rest assured that most will endure our winters. The botanical name, sempervivum, says it all. It translates to “live forever.” The more than 3,000 named varieties are available in all colors, shapes, sizes and textures.

The plants prefer full to partial sun. Good sunlight brings out the bright colors of the leaves. In heavy shade, they tend to revert to a drab green color. Good drainage is vital to success. Add peat moss to a sandy soil. You can add compost, gravel or vermiculite to your garden soil to loosen it and provide good drainage. I have seen them thrive in the cracks between stones in rock walls. They are very hardy.

The hens produce numerous offspring, chicks, thus allowing them to live forever. Most of the plants will live two or three years. At that time, the hen will have produced many chicks, all clustered around themselves, and then produce a flower. Then it will die. Pretty big sacrifice, huh? Those chicks will grow enough to begin producing their own chicks in only one season.

Propagation is easy: As little chicks appear, simply snip them off and put them into their own pots. Contact with moist soil and a little plant food should get them on their way to making your succulent bed even more interesting and beautiful.

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Carmen Cosentino operates Cosentino's Florist with his daughter, Jessica. He was elected to the National Floriculture Hall of Fame in 1998, and in 2008, received the Tommy Bright award for lifetime achievements in floral education. He can be reached at cosenti@aol.com or (315) 253-5316.

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