How to Grow Devil's Backbone

Bright pink leaf bracts on a thick green stem

 Susan Ford Collins / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Devil's Backbone 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 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. This has earned the plant many intriguing folk names including zig-zag plant, Christmas candle, fiddle flower, Persian lady slipper, Jacob's ladder, red bird flower, and Japanese poinsettia.

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 the bracts 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.

Botanical Name Pedilanthus tithymaloides or Euphorbia tithymaloides
Common Name Devil's Backbone, zig zag plant, red bird flower, Persian lady slipper
Plant Type tropical succulent
Mature Size 2-3 feet tall
Sun Exposure Bright indirect sun
Soil Type Rich, well-drained, slightly acidic
Soil pH 6.1 to 7.8
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color White, pink, red
Hardiness Zones USDA 9 to 10
Native Areas Tropical and sub-tropical North and Central America
Toxicity Sap is toxic and a skin irritant
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

Devil's Backbone Care

Devil's backbone 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.

Light

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.

Soil

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.

Water

Despite being a tropical plant, Devil's Backbone 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, Devil's Backbone 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 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit but can tolerate a low temperature of 50 or a high temperature of 80 with no major problems.

Fertilizer

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.

Is Devil's Backbone Toxic?

The milky sap of this plant's succulent stems can be toxic. It's best to place this plant where children or pets will not accidentally come in contact with it as it can be a skin irritant. It's also a good idea to wear gloves when handling it.

Propagating Devil's Backbone

The best time to snip cuttings for propagation is late summer.

Potting and Repotting

You should repot your Devil's Backbone plant every three years and replace the potting mix and amendments to prevent pests and fungus problems.

Common Pests/Diseases

The Devil's Backbone 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 better air circulation. A dilute solution of apple cider vinegar in water may be used to gently clean the leaves with a cotton ball, or try a home-made spray solution.