Echeverias and sempervivums

In case you haven’t heard, two of the trendiest container plants around are echeverias (I have no idea how you pronounce it but someone will correct you no matter what) and sempervivums (Hens-and-chicks). As a combination they are non-pareil. Both plants are in the Crassulaceae family and they are legion.

I once visited an amazing garden in the south of France where a greenhouse about the size of a football field (well at least half) was completely devoted to this family alone. It opened my eyes to the subtleties of the family. Though they may look alike to the untrained eye, there are 150 species of echeverias alone. It has taken nurseries until very recently to start catching up with these great plants.

Echeverias

Echeverias are thick fleshy succulents regarded as annuals for all those who don’t have a lovely glass house to overwinter them in. They are from tropics (Mexico, South America), and you can usually find them parading around as house plants in flower shops or as bedding plants in nurseries. I’ve noticed the price has been sneaking up as they become better known. You can still find bargains in the big box stores but don’t count on it. When buying, keep in mind that these little plants will grow. Many neophytes may think they are static and forget that everything in nature grows and grows.

Sempervivums Aymon Correvon Hen Chick in Spring

Sempervivums, on the other hand, have long been collectors’ items. I’ve seen whole sections of serious gardens devoted to semps (yes that’s what we devotees call them). Jack Broxholme, is a semp maven. He runs a small nursery out of his suburban backyard called Cavendish Perennials. His interest in semps was tweaked several years ago because he’d found only 20 varieties available at a major local nursery. He longed for hundreds of the thousand varieties he knew to be in cultivation. When he discovered a catalogue from Oregon carrying at least that many, he found nirvana.

When I visited recently, he had 180 varieties on the go. Most of them I’d never seen before and all were positively mouth-watering, dazzling but subtle creatures. The usual semps we see are pretty prolific. They throw off dozens of babies but some of these are so rare they produce only 2 or 3 in any given year. And though I wanted them all, most won’t be on the market for some time.

He also found things getting a little complicated. He discovered what he likes to call JAWS an acronym for Jovibarba, Orostachys, Rosularia and Sempervivums all Crassulaceae. Jovibarba is a genus with about 5 or 6 species in which the hen needs a razor-sharp knife for division. The main attraction is the colourful rigid rosette of gold or silver-edged leaves that come in bright yellow through all the greens, grey, pink, purple, red orange and brown to almost black. They are easy to grow but hard to propagate. The charms of all these species have made him a man possessed.

His desire came from yearning for plants that aren’t lax, don’t have rotting leaves to deal with and where the rosettes are most striking in winter time when everything else is looking pathetic. He loves the leaf shapes, the colours, the textures. What more could any plant deliver?.

Semps are unbelievable in many ways. They will withstand cold to 35?C on either side of the scale. They don’t go all ragged-looking in extremes. Many will change colour in summer to ordinary green but in spring and winter they will hold their original colour. They have but few demands: at least six hours of sun; absolutely no damp and shade, and prefer well-drained sandy soil.

Mr. Buxholme advises to make sure the plants have excellent drainage; and if you put them in pots add at least 25% coarse drainage material. He adds some slow-release fertilizer such as Osmocote along with good quality soil. They will grow like weeds and proliferate with this mix. In nature, of course, they live on next to nothing but are usually quite small. They are ideal for scree gardens and balconies where there’s enough sun.

Thomas Hobbs has a wonderful nursery in Vancouver and has put together containers of Echeverias and Sempervivums that are like works of art in structure, form and scale. He says both plants are like buttons, collect them all. His advice is to pack them into the pot cheek by jowl and neither will mind. Be sure to use a shallow pot. He points out that it’s a great way to use left over terra cotta saucers, just drill a hole in the bottom. He always adds a layer of coloured pea gravel to finish things off. When the plants have babies they will pop them out and you can start another container. Voila, you’ve become a collector.

  • Southlands Nursery, 6550 Balaclava Street, Vancouver V6N 1L9; 604-261-6411
  • Cavendish Perennials, Burlington Mall Farmer’s Market, Fairview and Guelph Line every Wednesday and Friday, 8 to 4.