Flora in the Alps – The Incredible Houseleek

mountain houseleek (Sempervivum montanum)

One of my most favourite plants in the Alps is the houseleek (Sempervivum). It’s a succulent, making the rosette of this alpine plant look more like something belonging in the desert. Its thick succulent leaves store water and nutrients, making the plant extremely drought resistant and allowing it to grow in hot and dry places in the alpine environment, like rocky crevices and cracks with very little soil and loads of sun. However, the most extraordinary feature of this plant is probably its way of reproduction.

Little clones

In the picture you see a houseleek with its little clones surrounding it . The mother plant supports the little ones through the above-ground creeping stems (called stolons), giving them a jump start on life. This is where the houseleek’s nickname ‘Hens and Chicks’ comes from. The original rosette, the ‘Hen’ produces the tiny rosette offsets that are known as the ‘Chicks.’

Sempervivum
Little clones surrounding the mother plant. This is where the term “Hen and chicks” comes from. Photos by Simone van Velzen.

Houseleek, with death soon to follow

But a houseleek can also grow a beautiful flower for reproduction purposes. Out of the centre of the main rosette emerges a thick flower stalk with colourful flowers at the tip. However, this plant is a monocarpic plant which means it grows for years before it finally blooms, with the plant’s death soon to follow. But by that time, the dying mother plant has already created many clones surrounding the initial rosette. And in time, they also will grow beautiful flowers.

Sempervivum tectorum
The thick flower stalk of a common houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum).

HOUSELEEK SPECIES

The different houseleek species you can see while hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc:

  • Cobweb (Sempervivum arachnoideum)
  • Common (Sempervivum tectorum)
  • Mountain (Sempervivum montanum)

The cobweb species is easy to recognise because of the white threads – which look like a spider’s web – across the rosette.

To tell the difference between a common houseleek rosette and a mountain houseleek rosette you can look at the small hairs on the leaves. The leaves of a mountain houseleek are totally covered with sticky hairs, while the common houseleek only has hairs on the edge of its leaves.

Read More about Flora in the Alps

Flora in the Alps – Little Thieves and Parasites

Flora in the Alps: Pollinators in High Elevations

Simone van Velzen

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