HouseleekBotanical Name: Sempervivum tectorum (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Crassulaceae
Synonyms: Jupiter's Eye. Thor's Beard. Jupiter's Beard. Bullock's Eye. Sengreen. Ayron. Ayegreen.
(French) Joubarbe des toits.
Part Used: Fresh leaves.
The Houseleek was dedicated of old to Jupiter or Thor, and bore also the names of Jupiter's Eye, Thor's Beard, Jupiter's Beard, Barba Jovis (in France, Joubarbe des toits), from its massive clusters of flowers, which were supposed to resemble the beard of Jupiter. The German name of Donnersoart and the English Thunderbeard have the same meaning, being derived from Jupiter the Thunderer.
It was in high esteem among the Romans, who grew it in vases before their houses.
It is not really indigenous to this country, being a native of the mountain ranges of Central and Southern Europe and of the Greek islands, but it was introduced into Great Britain many centuries ago and is now found abundantly throughout the country, its large rosettes of fleshy leaves being a familiar sight on many an old cottage roof.
The word Leek is from the Anglo-Saxon leac, a plant, so that Houseleek means literally the House Plant. It was also called, in the fourteenth century, Ayron, Ayegreen and Sengreen, i.e. Evergreen.
The generic name Sempervivum, from the Latin semper (always) and vivo (I live), refers to its retention of vitality under almost all conditions, and the specific name tectorum bears witness to its usual place of growth - a roof.
It was supposed to guard what it grows upon against fire and lightning, and we read that Charlemagne ordered it to be planted upon the roof of every house, probably with this view. Whatever the origin of the custom, it prevails in many other parts of Europe, as well as in England and France. Welsh peasants believe it protects their houses from storms, and ensures the prosperity of their inmates. Superstitious country-folk in Wiltshire are often found to have a strong objection to the removal of a plant of Houseleek from their roof, or even to the plucking of the flowers by a stranger, believing it will bring death to the dwellers; it was formerly believed to be an efficient guard against sorcery as well as against lightning.
The root is perennial and is fibrous. The thick succulent leaves enable the plant to retain vitality even in the driest weather, acting as reservoirs of moisture. The leaves, arising directly from the root, grow in compact, rose-like tufts, 2 to 4 inches in diameter. They are extremely fleshy and juicy, flat, 1 to 2 inches long, sessile, oblong, though broader towards the middle of the rosette, sharply pointed, and the edges fringed with hairs and of a purple colour.
The flowers are produced in July, but generally very sparingly. The flower-stems do not arise from the rosettes of leaves, but are on separate, upright shoots, which are from 9 inches to a foot or more in height, round, fleshy and stout, slightly downy, with the leaves scattered thickly on them. The flowers are clustered together on only one side of the stem and are numerous, 2/3 to 1 inch in diameter, of a dull, pale red-purple. Like other flowers in this genus they are absolutely regular and symmetrical throughout, the sepals, petals and pistils being all of the same number - twelve in this species - and the stamens just twice as many, twentyfour in this case, twelve of which are arranged alternately with the petals and are imperfect, frequently bearing in their anthers instead of pollen dust, embryo seeds, which never attain maturity. The flowers are quite scentless.
This is a most useful as well as effective plant for an old wall, or to cover the high part of a rock-garden; it can be absolutely relied upon to withstand drought.
Cultivation: This species will grow on rock-work, as well as on a roof, flourishing better than on ordinary ground. When once fixed, it will spread fast by means of its offsets. It may easily be made to cover the whole roof of a building, whether of tiles, thatch or wood, by sticking the offsets on with a little earth. Linnaeus stated that the plant was used in this manner as a preservative to the coverings of houses in certain parts of Sweden, and it is certain that it tends to preserve thatched roofs.
The flowering-heads die soon after they have blossomed, but the offsets soon supply their places.
Part Used Medicinally: The fresh leaves and the expressed juice from them. The leaves have a saline, astringent and acid taste, but no odour.
Constituents: The leaves contain malic acid in combination with lime.
Medicinal Action and Uses: Refrigerant, astringent, diuretic. In rural districts, the bruised leaves of the fresh plant, or its juice, are often applied as a poultice to burns, scalds, contusions, scrofulous ulcers, and in inflammatory conditions of the skin generally, giving immediate relief. If the juice be mixed with clarified lard and applied to an inflamed surface, the inflammation is quickly reduced.
It can be used in many skin diseases. Some old authorities recommend mixing the juice with cream.
With honey, the juice has been used to assuage the soreness and ulcerated condition of the mouth in thrush, the mixture being used with a hair pencil.
Boerhaave, the famous Dutch physician, found 10 oz. of the juice beneficial in dysentery, but it is not admitted into modern practice.
In large doses, Houseleek juice is emetic and purgative.
Dose, 2 to 10 drops. It is said to remove warts and corns. Parkinson tells us: 'The juice takes away corns from the toes and feet if they be bathed therewith every day, and at night emplastered as it were with the skin of the same House Leek.' The leaves sliced in two and the inner surface applied to warts, act as a positive cure for them. Culpepper informs us that: 'Our ordinary Houseleek is good for all inward heats, as well as outward, and in the eyes or other parts of the body: a posset made of the juice is singularly good in all hot agues, for it cooleth and tempereth the blood and spirits and quencheth the thirst; and is also good to stay all defluction or sharp and salt rheums in the eyes, the juice being dropped into them. If the juice be dropped into the ears, it easeth pain.... It cooleth and restraineth all hot inflammations St. Anthony's fire (Erysipelas), scaldings and burnings, the shingles, fretting ulcers, ringworms and the like; and much easeth the pain and the gout.' After describing the use of the leaves in the cure of corns, he goes on to say: 'it easeth also the headache, and the distempered heat of the brain in frenzies, or through want of sleep, being applied to the temples and forehead. The leaves bruised and laid upon the crown or seam of the head, stayeth bleeding at the nose very quickly. The distilled water of the herb is profitable for all the purposes aforesaid. The leaves being gently rubbed on any place stung with nettles or bees, doth quickly take away the pain.' Gerard tells us the: 'iuice of Houseleeke, Garden Nightshade and the buds of Poplar, boiled in hog's grease, maketh the most singular Populeon that ever was used in Chirugerie.' Galen recommends Houseleek for erysipelas and shingles, and Dioscorides as a remedy for weak and inflamed eyes. Pliny says it never fails to produce sleep.
In the fourteenth century it was used as an ingredient of a preparation for neuralgia, called hemygreyne, i.e. megrim, and an ointment used at that time for scalds and burns.
Culpepper speaks of the Small Houseleek, the Stonecrop Houseleek, the Common Stonecrop or Wallpepper, the Orpine, the Kidneywort and the Water Houseleek, some of which are known now under different names, the name Houseleek nowadays being reserved exclusively for the above-described species, Sempervivum tectorum.