Guest Author - Connie Krochmal
Though Christmas cactus is commonly available during the winter months, we don’t often hear much about hen-and-chicks, a winter-flowering Echeveria species. Typically, Echeveria gibbiflora typically blooms around Christmas time. For that reason, this plant deserves a closer look.
This is a member of the Crassulaceae family—the same one as the jade plant. Originally native to Central Mexico, this plant is traditionally used during the holidays. Around five feet in height, the flower stalks are really quite spectacular. These tend to be branched, and contain large numbers of blooms.
Hardy to about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, this Echeveria is suited to zone 8-10.
The Echeverias go by the common name of hen-and-chicks. That isn’t to be confused with Sempervirum, which is also known by the same common name.
When mature, this plant can be up to three feet across. As the name implies, it tends to form offsets in clumps around the mother plant.
Besides the usual species plant, there are several outstanding cultivars available. Some have particularly lovely leaves in tones of purple and maroon. Echeveria gibbiflora ‘Carunculata’ is quite distinctive. This cultivar has very blue colored leaves with very exotic-looking growths that arise from the upper foliage during some periods of the year. Rather than having the usual rosette, ground-hugging form, this looks more like an overgrown flowering cabbage or kale that we typically see during the fall months in garden centers.
There is also another form known as Echeveria gibbiflora metallica. Its rounded, metallic leaves are usually purplish-pink with pink margins. Its blooms are very spectacular. Produced on long stems, the vivid reddish-pink flowers open in large clusters. They are very long lasting. Oddly enough,
little plantlets can sometimes develop in the flowerheads.
In warm areas, these and the other Echeverias can be used as ground covers. They are also suitable for gravel gardens, rock gardens, and flower borders that are very well-drained. Like all succulents, they do require a well-drained soil. They would also be suitable for growing in wall gardens and container gardens. These are hardy only to zones 8-10. Those in colder climates probably won’t succeed very well with these plants. That’s because they’re most active during the colder months. In much of the East, it would be hard to give these the sun they need, particularly during the winter unless you provide them with enough supplemental light.
The Echeverias are all propagated by offsets and leaf cuttings. This is best done during the winter months because summers tend to be too hot.
Though we typically associate cacti and succulents with dry, desert areas, the Echeverias are unique. They’re native to wooded areas. This can make it challenging for gardeners to duplicate the exacting conditions these plants need.