Devils Backbone Plant: Growing The Curious Pedilanthus Tithymaloides

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.

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”:

Devils Backbone Plant up close with bloom and potted by window

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

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

April-May
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.

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

August-September
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.