Unassuming, low-growing and evergreen but I can only describe this plant as enchanting. Cocooned in its spiders’ webs, it looks like a magic carpet of ancient, neglected rosettes. The plant that time forgot in Ms Havisham’s glasshouse. Now it has produced a delicate pink flower, bringing a dash of colour that seems to say “Don’t be fooled, I’m still growing” and living up to its name which means “always alive”.
Sempervivum arachnoideum is sometimes known as cobweb house-leek. These apparent cobwebs are actually tiny white hairs that help protect the succulent from intense sunlight, dehydration or intense cold high up in the mountains. This makes perfect sense when you consider the tradition of using Sempervivum plants on the roofs of houses. This was done in the belief that it provided protection from lightning strikes and fires. In Wales there is still the folk association with growing it on the roof to bring good health and good fortune to the inhabitants. But another reason why Sempervivum got its name is its ability to not only survive but thrive in extreme conditions. They need little care but love full sun and a well-drained soil. They tolerate light shade. The plants will grow with little soil in the crevices of rocks or walls. They can also be grown in pots and do well in terracotta, breathable containers.
These plants reproduce easily by sending out offshoots, which root and become new rosettes independent of the parent plant. The stolon (or stem) connecting them to the mother plant will wither or can be cut off as the new plant develops its own root system.
These offshoots can be moved easily and repotted or replanted in a well-drained area. Sempervivum arachnoideum will flower after three or four years. The flowers grow on thick stems rising from the rosette and are hermaphrodite, having both male and female characteristics. After it has flowered it will die. But its place will soon be taken by a new offshoot.
The plants propensity to produce so many off-shoots has led to the common name “Hens and Chicks” which is used mostly in the US. Some plants have a central rosette which is larger than the surrounding ones, like a Mother Hen.
Like many succulents, Sempervivum arachnoideum is credited with medicinal qualities, particularly in the treatment of burns, boils or wounds. Pliny the Elder (23 -79 AD) wrote in his Naturalis Historiae about the use of crushed Sempervivum leaves and applying it to warts, ringworm, shingles, insect bites and advocated it in the treatment of earache. The Romans, long before harmful pesticides were invented, considered Sempervivum juice an effective deterrent to caterpillar infestations of crops.
Sempervivum arachnoideum is a member of the family Crassulaceae, native to the great Carpathian Mountains and the Alps. I can only admire this little warrior. It has endured over the centuries and continues to thrive, quietly and when its time is up at flowering, it goes out in style.
All photographs copyright Fota Frameyard Blog.