Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hens and chicks are herbs

A friend, who has been project chairperson for the Master Gardener's demonstration Hardy Cactus and Succulent Garden (first a Michigan State University demonstration garden, now transplanted to the property at the Easter Seals office in Flint) for many years, used to tell me there was very little to do with succulents in a herbal, "useful", sense.

Of course we all know about the lightning folklore concerning Sempervivums, and that Aloe Vera was a proven soothing medicinal herb. And that Yucca roots are both detergent and food, And that Opuntia pads and fruit are desert food.
But Hens and Chicks? Sempervivums?

Hens and Chicks, a.k.a. . House leeks (
Sempervivum tectorum), are hardy evergreen succulent herbs. They are exceedingly simple to grow, thriving in heat, cold, drought and poor soil; seemingly independent of human concern. That old saw, "thriving on neglect," fits them to a T.

I've read that they can be grown indoors in clay pots, like other cactus and succulents, but the only time I tried it, they stretched to the wan light of my midwinter window and lost their charm. If my son would take his tender succulent trees from out my limited grow light space (I'm succulent-sitting while he works on his basement renovation) then I might try again to raise indoor Hens and Chicks.

And only just because I have finally read a herbal use for them that I might actually try, aside from the French Emperor Charlemagne's decree, based I'm guessing, on earlier Anglo-Saxon, or earlier, lore, that his subjects should grow them on their roofs to ward away lightning strikes.

According to an old herbal calendar that I was cutting up to recycle the artwork into gift tags, Hens and Chicks leaves, crushed, serve as a facial, and are soothing to bumps and bruises. Use seems to be topical as in poultice, tincture wash, and salves. Like the Aloe Vera, the leaf can be cut vertically and the mucilage applied directly to the skin.

The calendar also provided a recipe:

House Leek Foot Bath

1 cup hot water

1/2 cup House leek leaves

1 gallon warm water

2 Tbsp. Epsom salts

Puree the leaves in a blender with the hot water. Pour into a foot bath, then add water and epsom salts. Soak the feet for 20 minutes.

Mrs. Grieve, in her A Modern Herbal, a classic English herbal encyclopedia edited by the many times neglected Mrs. C.F. Leyel, and published in 1931 (that you can now read online), describes many traditional western herbs, and I just looked up Hens and Chicks, a.k.a. House leeks. (Another Master Gardener, Judy, gave me her copy when she was cleaning out her bookshelves. I love its breadth of knowledge. And it makes a heck of a doorstop.)

Here are some factoids:

Leac is Anglo Saxon for 'plant'. The Latin Semper (forever) and vivum (I live) were easy, the interesting epithet however, tectorum refers to its location of choice - the roof.

Cool legend - it protects homes from sorcery as well as fires and lightning.

Linnaeus stated it preserves thatched roofs in Sweden.

Plenty of topical uses. Parkinson tells us the foot bath above might be just the thing for warts and corns, used nightly, with the inner leaf applied as a plaster.

The Mrses. Grieve and Leyel go on and on listing a plethora of historical useful uses for our cute little Hens and Chicks. You can look them up, but I'll stick with the foot bath use as my Hens and Chicks touchstone.

For Sedums, there is a whole another entry in The Modern Herbal. Who-da thunk it?

If you are one of those modern gardeners committing to permaculture in your yard, feel free to plant a hardy cactus and succulent garden - they're HERBS!

1 comment:

dynochick (Jan) said...

I have some hens and chicks growing on a pair of old boots. I think there is a photo of it on my houseblog from a couple of years ago.