How to Grow Zigzag Plant

devil's backbone

The Spruce / Anastasia Tretiak

Zigzag plant is popular as both an indoor tropical plant and, in frost-free climates, a handsome landscape specimen. It's native to warmer parts of North America and much of Central America, including Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It is considered somewhat endangered in parts of Mexico.

The slow-growing plant has green and white variegated leaves that may sometimes develop a rosy blush tint in warm weather. It also has dramatic, colorful leaf bracts that look like slipper-shaped flowers, as well as unusual "crooked" yet symmetrical stems.

Because the "flowers" are actually leaf bracts, they don't produce any fragrance. The bracts appear in summer, but do not last a very long time. Though they can be white or green, it is the red and bright pink ones that are most sought after and inspire the plant's many colorful folk names. Zigzag plant should be planted outdoors in fall and winter.

Botanical Name Euphorbia tithymaloides (formerly Pedilanthus tithymaloides)
Common Name Zigzag plant, red bird flower, fiddle flower
Plant Type Tropical succulent
Mature Size 2-3 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Bright, indirect sun
Soil Type Rich, well-drained, slightly acidic
Soil pH 6.1- 7.8
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color White, pink, red
Hardiness Zones 9-10 (USDA)
Native Areas Tropical and sub-tropical North and Central America
Toxicity Sap is toxic to humans and animals
devil's backbone detail

The Spruce / Anastasia Tretiak

top view of devil's backbone

The Spruce / Anastasia Tretiak

angular stems and pink leaves of Devil's Backbone plant
These unusual stems earn this plant's name of Devil's Backbone, zig zag plant and Jacob's ladder  Crazy for Chinchillas / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Zigzag Plant Care

Zigzag plant is generally grown as a houseplant and is a fairly easy plant to grow and care for. It's also easy to propagate from cuttings.


This plant does best with plenty of indirect sunlight. If you position it in a very sunny window, a lightweight curtain or slatted blinds turned to half-position works to give this plan the sun exposure it needs. Overly bright sunlight may scorch the tender foliage, so keep an eye on it and move it or create some shade if this happens.


Any rich potting mix will work fine for growing this plant, providing the drainage is good. Adding vermiculite, peat moss, and a bit of sand will help keep the soil evenly moist but not too wet.

Using an unglazed clay pot with drainage holes in the bottom will help insure the soil drains effectively.


Despite being a tropical plant, zigzag plant doesn't like wet soil. Misting it a bit if your house is dry can help it stay healthy, and mimics the plant's preferred natural setting.

Temperature and Humidity

As with most tropical plants, zigzag plant does not tolerate cold very well, so give it a spot inside that is away from any drafty windows. It prefers a temperature range between 60 to 70 F but can tolerate a low temperature of 50 F or a high temperature of 80 F with no major problems.


A bit of fertilizer in spring and every three weeks or so thereafter can help it produce nice healthy bracts in summer. The plant goes fairly dormant in the autumn and winter, so discontinue any fertilizing at that time.


Zigzag plant requires very little care in the way of pruning. Simply use clean garden shears to prune away troubled branches, and trim back the plant yearly, in late winter.

Propagating Zigzag Plant

The best time to snip cuttings for propagation is late summer. To do so: clip 1-inch stem sections on non-blooming stems.

Potting and Repotting Zigzag Plant

You should repot your zigzag plant plant every three years and replace the potting mix and amendments to prevent pests and fungus problems. If the roots seem to have outgrown the pot, size up by 3 to 4 inches in diameter.

Common Pests and Diseases

The zigzag plant isn't bothered by too many pests; sometimes spider mites become an issue. One clue to this is that the plant's leaves will start to look a bit drab and dull. Clean the leaves gently with a moistened cotton ball to remove the mites.

As for diseases, you may find your plant is somewhat susceptible to powdery mildew. This is usually caused by a lack of airflow or crowded conditions. Try repotting the plant and giving it some space to allow for better air circulation. A diluted solution of apple cider vinegar in water may be used to gently clean the leaves with a cotton ball, or try a homemade spray solution.