The devil’s backbone plant

Pedilanthus tithymaloides, variegated

Devil’s Backbone, Jacob’s Ladder, Slipper Flower

Devil’s Backbone is a succulent shrub with thick zigzag stems native to dry tropical forests of Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and northern South America.

Pedilanthus fleshy bract-cups are shaped like pink slippers and are only open at the tip. Pedilanthus, literally “slipper flower”, are members of the Euphorbiaceae family. This subtropical succulent is a distant relative of poinsettias. Devil’s Backbone grows 2′ to 4′ tall and 2′ to 3′ wide. It has 1″ to 3″ long leaves and makes an excellent potted plant or low shrub.

Pedilanthus is available in two varieties, green and variegated. The variegated form takes on a pinkish tint during cooler weather. Scroll down to see how they get gasoline from the Slipper Flower plant.

Pedilanthus tithymaloides, variegated. Click image to enlarge.

Devil’s Backbone stems. Click image to enlarge.

Jacob’s Ladder bract-cups. Click image to enlarge.

BONUS GREEN FACTOID: “Pedilanthus tithymaloides was evaluated as an incessantly renewable and potential source of hydrocarbons. Extracts were obtained from successive extraction of whole plant material with solvents like petroleum ether (b.p. 60_80°C), benzene (b.p. 80°C) and ethyl acetate (76_78°C). A white amorphous mixture of hydrocarbons was obtained by elution of the column by petroleum ether (b.p. 60_80°C) which was found to be comparable with gasoline.” Source: Potential use of Pedilanthus tithymaloides Poit. as a renewable resource of plant hydrocarbons

Bract-cups close-up. Click image to enlarge.

Pedilanthus leaves close-up. Click image to enlarge.

Plant Facts:

Common Name: Devil’s Backbone, Jacob’s Ladder, Slipper Flower

Botanical Name: Pedilanthus tithymaloides (ped e lan’ thus tith’ e ma loi’ dees), variegated

Family: Euphorbiaceae (yoo-for-bee-AY-see-ay)

Plant Type: Succulent Shrub

Origin: Sub-Tropical / Tropical Americas

Zones: 10 – 11, Sub-tropical — withstands light frost or short cold spells in protected areas

Height: 2′ – 4′

Rate of Growth: Medium

Salt Tolerance: Moderate

Soil Requirements: Moderately fertile, very but well-drained soil

Water Requirements: Water freely spring to autumn, keep fairly dry in winter, very drought tolerant

Nutritional Requirements: Balanced liquid fertilizer monthly

Light Requirements: Indirect sun to partial shade

Form: Upright, bushy, clump forming small shrub

Leaves: Mid-green and white mottled, evergreen or deciduous, 1″ to 3″, oval to elliptic, pink tinged in cooler weather

Flowers: Fleshy pink bract-cups resembling slippers to 1/2″ long, mid-spring – summer


Pests: Leaf spots, powdery mildew, stem spots

Uses: Shrub border, potted accent, possible renewable fuel source

Bad Habits: Milky sap in stems and leaves causes stomach distress if swallowed, may cause dermatitis

Cost: $ to $$ — inexpensive

Propagation: Stem-tip cuttings in summer

Sources: American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, Stokes Tropicals

The Devil’s Backbone plant – Pedilanthus tithymaloides with its zig-zag stems give it a distinct look.

The plant is native to the subtropical regions of Central America and North America.

While it’s still often called the Pedilanthus tithymaloides, the Pedilanthus genus has been merged into the Euphorbia genus, giving it the name “Euphorbia tithymaloides.”

Now the Devils backbone now calls the Euphorbias below “cousin”:

  • Crown of Thorns plant (Euphorbia milii)
  • African Milk Tree (Euphorbia trigonia)
  • Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli)

No matter what scientific name used, it also goes by many different common names. Besides the Devil’s Backbone, it’s commonly called:

  • Redbird cactus flower
  • Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum goes by Jacobs ladder)
  • Fiddle flower
  • Christmas candle
  • ZigZag plant
  • Slipper plant
  • Japanese Poinsettia

That’s just part of the list. In some regions, you’ll discover additional common names. Here are a few tips on caring for this unique plant.

Caring For The Devils Backbone Plant

Size and Growth

The Devil’s Backbone plant is a shrub and may eventually reach three to four feet in height. The thick branches and stems have a zig-zag pattern and produce small, oval-shaped leaves with pointed tips.

When the plant is still maturing, its leaves may not grow in very thick. As the plant matures, it can become quite bushy.

It’s not a fast-growing plant. It grows at a medium rate and may take several years to mature.

Flowering and Fragrance

Euphorbia tithymaloides produces small slipper-shaped flowers, where the Latin name Pedilanthus (“Slipper Flower”) comes from.

The plant blooms in the summer. The flowers are small, don’t last long, and do not produce a scent.

The orangish-red flowers grow from the tips of the stems on small, slipper-shaped bracts.

Temperature and Light Requirements

Provide this succulent plant with plenty of sunlight. It grows best in an area receiving sun throughout the day without direct sunlight. Look for partial shade to partial sun.

The recommended growing zone is USDA hardiness zone 9 – 11. If temperatures get below 40° degrees Fahrenheit during the winter, move the plant indoors.

It’s a tropical plant needing a combination of sunlight and moisture. It can thrive indoors at room temperature if kept it in a humid area.

TIP: Increase the humidity by misting the leaves and branches with water from a spray bottle.

Watering and Feeding

The zig zag plant needs moist soil with regular watering throughout the summer and hardly at all during the winter. In the spring and fall, water moderately.

From spring to the middle of summer, add a liquid fertilizer when watering every three to four weeks.

Soil and Transplanting

To keep this plant healthy, use a commercial cactus mix or prepare your own mixture. You may also want to add a little bit of peat moss to help absorb excess water.

The plant should be repotted every two to three years in a well-drained soil mix. When transplanting, get the new pot ready first.

You can easily pull the plant from its container, shake the clumps of dirt free from around the roots, and place it in the new pot.

Maintenance and Grooming

For a bushy plant, pinch out the tips of the plant occasionally. Pinching the tips helps encourage thicker growth.

Other than pinching, plants need no particular grooming tasks.

Care Tips – What To Do Month by Month

Devil’s Spine plant rests during winter, water sparingly, do not fertilize. Provide as much bright light as possible.

Begin to water more and starting feeding every 3-4 weeks. Keep plants in plenty of bright lighting. Watch out for more intense sunlight in spring which can scorch leaves.

Provide plenty of bright light and lots of water. Stop fertilizing near the end of July. Perfect time to start new plants from cuttings.

Slow down on watering as the plant prepares for its winter rest.

How to Propagate Zig-Zag Plant “Pedilanthus”

You can propagate the backbone Pedilanthus from cuttings. Take stem cuttings in the early summer.

You only need one leaf on each cutting, so you should be able to take as many cuttings as you want. Make sure that the cuttings are about three to four inches long.

Allow the cuttings to dry for several hours. You’ll notice that the white sap on the branches starts to dry. You can also place the ends of the cuttings in boiling water to help the milky sap dry faster.

Use moist sand and perlite for the soil. However, regular potting soil is fine, and you shouldn’t need to repot after plants take root.

If using a cactus mix or sand for the soil, you’ll need to transplant the cuttings after rooting. A cactus mix doesn’t contain the nutrients the plant needs.

Euphorbia Tithymaloides Pests and Diseases

Scale insects are the only pests to worry about. They look like small bumps on the leaves. Wipe them off with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol.

If the leaves become dull, the plant may be getting attacked by spider mites.

If the leaves turn yellow and fall off, the plant is getting too much sunlight.

Suggested Japanese Poinsettia Uses

In cooler regions, the Pedilanthus tithymaloides grows best in a bright window or a greenhouse.

In warmer areas, grow Pedilanthus as a potted plant to bring something different to your yard.

Devil’s Backbone Plant Info: How To Grow The Devil’s Backbone Plant Indoors

There are numerous fun and descriptive names for the devil’s backbone houseplant. In an effort to describe the blooms, devil’s backbone has been called red bird flower, Persian lady slipper and Japanese poinsettia. Descriptive monikers for the foliage include rick rack plant and Jacob’s ladder. Whatever you call it, learn how to grow the devil’s backbone plant for unique and easy to care for indoor flora.

Devil’s Backbone Plant Info

The scientific name for this plant, Pedilanthus tithymaloides, means foot-shaped flower. The plant is native to the American tropics but only hardy in USDA zones 9 and 10. It makes a superb houseplant with its 2-foot tall stems, alternate leaves and colorful “flowers” which are actually bracts or modified leaves.

The leaves are lance shaped and thick on wiry stems. The bract color may be white, green, red or pink. The plant is a member of the spurge family. No devil’s backbone plant info would be complete without noting that the milky sap may be poisonous to some people. Care should be exercised when handling the plant.

How to Grow the Devil’s Backbone Plant

Growing the plant is easy and propagation even simpler. Just cut a 4- to 6-inch section of the stem from the plant. Let the cut end callus for a few days and then insert it into a pot filled with perlite.

Keep the perlite lightly moist until the stems root. Then repot the new plants in a good houseplant potting soil. Care of devil’s backbone babies is the same as the adult plants.

Growing Pedilanthus Indoors

Devil’s backbone houseplant likes bright indirect sunlight. Plant in direct sun in fall and winter, but give it a little protection from stinging hot rays in spring and summer. Just turning the slats on your blinds can be enough to keep the tips of the leaves from sizzling.

Water the plants when the top few inches of soil feel dry. Keep it only moderately moist, yet not soggy.

The plant produces the best growth with a once per month fertilizer solution diluted by half. Devil’s backbone houseplant does not need to be fed in the dormant seasons of fall and winter.

Choose a draft free location in the home when growing Pedilanthus indoors. It doesn’t tolerate cold breezes, which can kill off the tips of the growth.

Long Term Care of Devil’s Backbone

Repot your plant every three to five years or as needed in a rich houseplant mix with plenty of sand mixed in to increase drainage. Use unglazed pots, which allow excess moisture to freely evaporate and prevent wet root damage.

Unchecked plants may get up to 5 feet in height. Prune off any problem branches and trim back lightly in late winter to keep the plant in good form.

Red Bird of Paradise

Large, up to 33 cm long, brown and yellow with a dark brown iris, grey legs and yellow bill. The male has an emerald green face, a pair of elongated black corkscrew-shaped tail wires, dark green feather pompoms above each eye and a train of glossy crimson red plumes with whitish tips at either side of the breast. The male measures up to 72 cm long, including the ornamental red plumes that require at least six years to fully attain. The female is similar but smaller in size, with a dark brown face and has no ornamental red plumes. The diet consists mainly of fruits, berries and arthropods.

Picture of the Red Bird of Paradise has been licensed under a GFDL
Original source: Own work
Author: Doug Janson
Permission: GNU Free Documentation License

The Red Bird of Paradise is classified as Near Threatened (NT), is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future.

Red Bird of Paradise, Dwarf Poinciana, Pride of Barbados, Peacock Flower, flamboyan-de-jardin Caesalpinia pulcherrima is Naturalized in Texas and other States. Positive jlk818 On Oct 9, 2006, jlk818 from Fort Stockton, TX wrote: I can’t say enough good things about this plant. Out here in hot dry W. Texas it has been just beautiful. We put it on a drip system for deep watering. The 2nd year it was about 5 ft. More

blossoms, the Red Bird of Paradise plant is truly the Peacock Flower of tropical gardens. Red Bird of Paradise plants have the formidable botanical name of Caesalpinia pulcherima but in countless garden, parks, mountainsides and along highway medians in the U.S., Mexico, Asia, Africa and Central America, this vibrant summer flower is known and loved as The Red Bird of Paradise. More

The Red Bird of Paradise is one of several desert plants that I recommend for people who want desert plants that are perennial (you need to plant them only once), hardy, low care, relatively drought resistant, easy to find, pretty cheap to buy, and provide lovely color many times during the year. See Red Bird of Paradise pictures. The botanical name for Red Bird of Paradise is Caesalpinia pulcherrima. More

Red Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubraRed Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubra), also Cendrawasih Merah, is a bird of paradise in the genus Paradisaea, family Paradisaeidae. Description Large, up to 33cm long, brown and yellow with a dark brown iris, grey legs and yellow bill. More

The red bird of paradise perennial plant produces a large blossom that resembles the head of a bird. Flowers sit on large shoots that often reach 3 to 5 feet in length. At the base of the flowers, foliage forms a clump of dark evergreen stiff leaves. The plant requires a greenhouse or a tropical climate to survive and thrive. Follow a simple process to transplant these beautiful plants properly. More

The red bird of paradise is a striking plant that draws attention to any landscape. Its flower, when in bloom, has characteristics similar to those of a bird’s beak and plume. Bird of paradise prefers warm temperatures and does well in southern gardens. People who want bird of paradise often purchase it as a seedling, but it can be… More

A note about distribution: The Red Bird of Paradise is endemic to the small Waigeo and Batanta Islands in West Papua, Indonesia, by the western point of the island of New Guinea. Jan Posted 14 months ago. ( permalink ) view profile cathy_rattu Pro User says: nicely caught! Posted 7 months ago. More

A rare red bird of paradise is being raised by its mother at the Houston Zoo. The chick hatched in the Zoo More

The Red Bird of Paradise is endemic and can only be found on Waigeo/Gam and Batanta. The birds come in from the inland towards the same tree, early morning every day. They only stay inland if it is raining or has rained heavily that night. If this happens, the trip is cancelled. More

The red bird of paradise is one of the most colorful and easiest to take care of plants for Phoenix. It is decidious but blooms continuously through the summer. Neither heat nor frost are a problem for this plant in the lower desert. Blooms Sp Su F W Watering Sched. More

Q: Please advise how I might save what is left of my poor Devil’s backbone plant (Pedilanthus tithymaloides). During my wife’s fight with cancer it was totally forgotten in a dim room with no water for fifteen months. It has a few pink leaves, all up near the tips of the five foot tall stalks. Should I cut some or all of the stalks back? In years past it lived on our shaded front porch in summer.

A: It’s remarkable the determination to live that people and plants possess. Your euphorbia has demonstrated the genetic ability to survive under very poor conditions. Even without light and water for more than a year, it still has life. I think you can nurse it back to health with a small effort.

The first thing it needs is light and plenty of it. Move it to the sunniest window possible. Cut two of the tallest branches back by half – even if they have no leaves afterwards. Avoid touching the irritating milky sap that exudes from the stem. Oddly enough, scientists have found that this latex-like juice could be a natural source of hydrocarbons similar to gasoline.

Give it one application of houseplant fertilizer at half strength now and water it every two weeks until late April. Allow the soil to dry between watering. When outdoor temperatures are above fifty degrees at night you can take it outdoors and prune the whole plant back to about twelve inches. Keep it on the front porch or in dappled sunshine for the summer. Fertilize once again in June. It should have lots of new branches and leaves by September, when you can bring it indoors for the winter.

Tags For This Article: fertilizing, Summer, watering, Winter

Devil’s Backbone

Devil’s backbone is a fun houseplant for a medium to bright spot. It can tolerate low light for extended periods, but eventually leans toward the light and gets lanky, becoming unattractive (so we don’t recommend it for low light). Devil’s backbone can take direct sun on its leaves indoors, and with enough light, you might even get to enjoy pink or bronze tones to the foliage.
Water devil’s backbone when the soil starts to dry. It can survive extended periods without water, but it tends to drop its lower leaves if it goes without water too long. Once it’s watered properly again, the leaf dropping typically stops.
Check out more low-water houseplant options!
Devil’s backbone is one of the easier houseplants when it comes to humidity; low humidity is fine, as are average and high humidity levels.
Pruning devil’s backbone isn’t necessary, nor is fertilizing. But you can fertilize it a couple of times per year if you want it to grow faster. In this case, we recommend using a houseplant fertilizer and following the directions on the product’s label.
Note: Devil’s backbone is not intended for human or animal consumption.

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