Devils Backbone Plant: How To Grow The Curious Pedilanthus Tithymaloides

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The Devil’s Backbone plant – Pedilanthus tithymaloides [ped-ill-AN-thus tih-ee-mal-OY-deez] with its zig-zag stems give it a distinct look.

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

Devils Backbone Plant up close with bloom and potted by windowPin
Variegated Devil backbone plant flower

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.”

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

  • Crown of Thorns plant (Euphorbia milii)
  • African Milk Tree – Learn tips on Euphorbia trigona care
  • Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli)

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

  • Redbird cactus flower or Redbird flower
  • Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum goes by Jacobs ladder)
  • Fiddle flower
  • Christmas candle
  • ZigZag plant
  • Devils ribcage plant
  • Devils Spine plant
  • Red Slipper Spurge plant
  • Slipper Plant
  • Japanese Poinsettia

Devil’s Backbone Quick Care Tips

  • Botanical Name: Pedilanthus Tithymaloides
    Common Name(s): Devil’s Backbone, Zigzag Plant, Jacob’s Ladder
    Synonyms: Euphorbia Tithymaloides
    Family & Origin: Euphorbiaceae family, native to subtropical regions of Central and North America
    Growability: Easy to grow
    Grow Zone: USDA zones 9-11
    Size: Grows up to 3-4′ feet tall
    Flowering: Blooms year-round with small, inconspicuous flowers
    Light: Bright, indirect light
    Humidity: Tolerates low humidity
    Temperature: Prefers temperatures between 60-85°F
    Soil: Well-draining soil
    Water: Allow soil to dry out between waterings, water thoroughly
    Fertilizer: Fertilize monthly during growing season with a balanced fertilizer
    Pests & Diseases: Susceptible to mealybugs and spider mites, watch for root rot if overwatered
    Propagation: Propagated through stem cuttings
    Plant Uses: Makes a great indoor or outdoor plant, can be used as a hedge or in a mixed container garden.

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.

Devils Backbone Plant Care

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 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

Devil’s backbone 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.

Devil’s Backbone Plant 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.

Zigzag Plant Care – Watering and Feeding Jacob’s Ladder

The zig zag plant is drought-tolerant but does best in 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 potting soil 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.

devil's backbone plant outdoorsPin
Variegated devil’s backbone plant growing outdoors

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.

Jacob’s Ladder Care Tips – What To Do Month by Month

Devil’s backbone 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 even some direct sun. 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 Jacob’s ladder prepares for its winter rest.

How To Propagate Devils Backbone “Pedilanthus”

You can propagate the backbone Pedilanthus plant 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.

Variegated leaves on shrub, pink accents.Pin
Photo Credit: Instagram @cactuspeg

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 devil’s backbone plant cuttings after rooting. A cactus mix doesn’t contain the nutrients the plant needs.

Euphorbia Tithymaloides Care – 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.

As far a diseases go, the Devil’s backbone plant is prone to powdery mildew. [source]

NOTE: All parts of the plant are toxic if ingested. Contact with toxic latex sap can cause skin irritation and nausea. Wear gloves when handling Euphorbia tithymaloides.

Variegated plant leaves in pot.Pin
Photo Credit: Instagram @khasa_gardening

Suggested Japanese Poinsettia Uses

In cooler regions, the devil’s backbone grows best in a bright window or a greenhouse.

In warmer areas, grow Pedilanthus as a potted plant where its variegated foliage brings something different to your yard.

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