One of the most exciting and easy to care for houseplants to add to your home is the Devil’s Backbone. This plant is drought-resistant, can withstand an array of temperatures and humidities, and is extremely attractive to the eye to boot!
The Devil’s Backbone plant is a tropical succulent native to the tropical and subtropical regions of North and Central America, including Mexico. Today, however, the plant is endangered in many parts of Central America.
This plant received the nickname “Devil’s Backbone” and many others thanks to its alternating leaf pattern which can resemble a spine. Its leaves are variegated with yellow and cream streaks. It produces blooms often described as beak- or slipper-shaped.
While the sap produced within this plant is toxic upon ingestion and touch, it is a great plant to keep within your home as long as you are safe. They are very easy to care for, look beautiful, and will not die of thirst if you must leave town for a few days.
So without further ado, here’s everything you need to know in order to grow and care for E. tithymaloides.
|Scientific name||Euphorbia tithymaloides; Pedilanthus tithymaloides|
|Common names||Devil’s Backbone; Jacob’s Ladder; Red Bird flower; Rick Rack plant; Zigzag plant, devil’s spine|
|Plant Type||Tropical Perennial Succulent; Houseplant|
|Height and Width||2-3 feet tall;|
|Origin||Tropical and subtropical regions of North America; Central America; Mexico (zones 9-10)|
|Flower colors||Green, White, Pink, and Red|
|Foliage color||Green, Dark Green; Variegated|
|Sun Exposure||Bright and Indirect Sunlight|
|Soil Type & pH||Rich, well-draining soil; Soil pH between 6.1 and 7.8 (slightly acidic)|
|Special features||Summer blooming; Toxic sap; Alternating leaves; Colorful bracts; Easy to care for|
How to Grow the Devil’s Backbone
It is best to grow E. tithymaloides indoors, within the safety of your home. While they are much more likely to bloom outdoors, this species is specifically known for the beauty of its leaves and will better thrive if kept indoors.
Just be sure to provide the zig zag plant with nutritious soil, a well-draining pot, and bright indirect sunlight.
Propagating E. tithymaloides is extremely simple in comparison with other common houseplants making it an even better choice for beginners. While it is possible to propagate the seeds your individual produces, it is much easier and time-efficient to propagate with stem cuttings.
Look for the healthiest, strongest-looking stem that is at least 5 inches long— choosing the right stem will give it a better chance at rooting because of the stored energy within it.
With a clean pair of scissors, cut away a 4 to 6 inch portion of the stem being sure there is at least one leaf growing from that portion. Since only one leaf is necessary for propagation, you may take several cuttings from the same individual.
Let your new cutting dry for a few days, 24 hours at minimum, in order to form a callus on the cut end. The callus will protect your new growth from forming blackleg and will promote the growth of its own root system.
Once the callus has formed and any excess sap has dried, stick your houseplant into a fresh pot of soil mixed with perlite or moist sand. Keep the soil moist until it has rooted. You do not have to repot once it has rooted but repotting will not harm your new plant.
The best time to propagate E. tithymaloides is during the late spring or early summer and once your new cutting has rooted, take care of it the same way you would an adult plant. If you want your houseplant to more resemble a bush, another option is to plant your cutting next to your original plant.
Just make sure your pot is large enough for another root system to form. Also, it is important that you wear gloves when touching E. tithymaloides as its milky sap is toxic and can cause skin irritation.
Because this houseplant is a type of succulent, it does not need much water and requires well-draining soil in order to rid itself of any excess moisture. Similarly, E. tithymaloidesneeds rich and slightly acidic soil to thrive in.
Cactus mix is a great way to steer clear of excess moisture, however, it does not provide great nutrition to your houseplant. A similar alternative is to add peat moss, sand, or vermiculite to any regular potting soil which will help absorb excess moisture while providing nutrients to your plant.
Perlite is another great option for ensuring your potted plant is provided with nutrients and always be sure to use a pot that promotes drainage, as well.
While pruning is not necessary for the health of E. tithymaloides, it is a great way to keep your plant looking healthy. These plants can reach up to five feet tall when left alone, so you may want to prune to keep it at a certain height.
Pruning in the late winter may also help to promote growth in the spring.
Always be sure to use clean shears when pruning so as not to spread any disease or infection throughout the plant and do not make unnecessary cuts. Too much trauma to the plant will weaken it and lessen its ability to grow.
It is important that you wear gloves when touching the leaves as its sap is toxic and can cause skin irritation.
Repotting and Transplanting
Repotting is necessary for most houseplants and is an important step in maintaining the health of your E. tithymaloides. You want to repot every three to five years as well as when the houseplant seems to be outgrowing its pot. Doing so will prevent the plant from developing issues caused by fungus or pests.
That being said, root growth restriction can promote blooms from forming so be sure it is necessary before repotting your houseplant.
Before removing the plant from its soil, be sure it is well hydrated and healthy. Loosen the soil around the stem and remove any extra soil that you can. If you have properly loosened the soil, the roots should easily slip out and you can then shake any clumps of soil away.
Add extra sand, perlite, or peat moss to the bottom layer of soil to prevent root rot and replant your Devil’s Backbone in an unglazed, well-draining pot.
As with propagation, it is best to repot during the spring and summer months.
How to Care for the Devil’s Backbone Plant Indoors
Here are some tips on caring for E. tithymaloides once it is in the container.
Though E. tithymaloides is tropical, it is also a succulent and is, therefore, drought-tolerant. A good rule of thumb to follow is that it is better to under-water than to over-water as excess moisture can cause root rot, yellowing leaves, and other various issues.
You only want to water when the top half of the soil feels dry to the touch. You can check by sticking your finger into the soil and also by picking up the pot to feel its weight. If it feels rather heavy, it probably has enough water to last a bit longer.
E. tithymaloides prefers soil that is slightly moist without being soggy. A great way to ensure this is by planting it in an unglazed, well-draining pot that contains soil mixed with sand, perlite, or peat moss.
During the summer months, it is important to water every time the top half of the soil is dry. You can go slightly longer between waterings in the spring and fall and will want to severely limit the amount of water provided during the winter months.
The best type of sunlight for your Devil’s Backbone is bright but indirect sun during the spring and summer months. It is extremely important that you do not let the container sit in the sun during these months as too much sunlight can cause extreme damage to its foliage.
You can easily tell if the houseplant is being burnt by the sun as its leaves will curl in on themselves and they will look dull, brown, and crispy. It is best to place your plant in front of a window that has blinds or a light curtain so that you can control the amount of sunlight received.
During the fall and winter months, you can allow the houseplant to have a little more direct sun throughout the day as the sun’s rays are not as intense during this time. Make sure you provide it with plenty of direct sunlight during the winter so it does not develop root rot from excess moisture.
Similarly, mornings and evenings are the best time to allow for more sunlight during the spring and summer as the sun’s rays are not as intense during this time.
Temperature and Humidity
Being a tropical plant, the Devil’s Backbone definitely prefers a warmer environment and thrives when in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees F. They are, however, a resilient species and can withstand temperatures as high as 80 degrees F and as low as 50 degrees F for short periods of time.
If you do happen to have the specimen outside, be sure to bring it inside if temperatures drop below 50 degrees F.
When it comes to humidity, Devil’s Backbone is one of the more forgiving houseplants. Even though it is a tropical plant, it can do well in low and average humidity environments. That being said, proper humidity can increase the growth rate.
You can achieve a higher humidity environment by misting the leaves and stems with water upon each watering.
While fertilizer is not absolutely necessary to grow a healthy plant, fertilizing your Devil’s Backbone will increase its growth and output of blooms.
During the spring and summer months, its growing period, you want to fertilize your plant every three to four waterings. This will increase the amount of growth it experiences, including the number of flowers it produces.
In the fall and winter months, you can cut back on fertilization and only include it every five to six waterings.
Use liquid fertilizer – if you can, look for one that is specific to cacti and/or succulents.
Pest and diseases
You should not be overly concerned about your Devil’s Backbone being threatened by pests, however, it is something to consider when growing any plant inside. Similarly, while Devil’s Backbone is not predisposed to any particular fungus or bacteria, there is always a risk.
Some common pests you may encounter when growing this species are mealybugs, spider mites, and scale insects.
These pets are extremely common amongst all houseplants and can sometimes resemble a buildup of small cotton fibers. They can multiply extremely quickly which is why they can be so hard to get rid of.
First, wipe away all visible bugs and webs on the pedilanthus plant. You may even want to lightly spray your entire plant with water. You can then apply a pesticide every week to two weeks for one month.
Scale insects will resemble small bumps on the surface underneath the leaves. They can easily blend into the surface of the leaves, however, making them difficult to spot.
If you believe your plant has been infested, you can wipe away the scale with rubbing alcohol and then follow up with a pesticide.
Powdery mildew is a fungus that can be caused by insufficient airflow. You can easily tell if your plant is suffering from powdery mildew as its leaves will look as though they are covered in a fine, white powder.
You can try moving the container to an area with better airflow or an area that is less crowded. Applying a spray solution of apple cider vinegar and water can help clear up the powdery mildew.
Common Varieties and Cultivars
Some common subspecies of the Devil’s Backbone plant that you might find growing in the wild include:
- E.tithymaloides tithymaloides
- E. tithymaloides angustifolia
- E. tithymaloides bahamensis
- E. tithymaloides jamaicensis
- E. tithymaloides padifolia
- E. tithymaloides parasitica
- E. tithymaloides retusa
- E. tithymaloides smallii
However, these are rarely grown as houseplants, with the primary species being the most common variety selected for this purpose.
The Devil’s Backbone plant is a great option for those who want to bring nature indoors without feeling tied down by their plant. This variety is extremely robust and can continue to thrive without water for quite a time.
That being said, you always want to try to provide your plant with the best care possible for maximum results.
However, for the beginner, the variegated devil’s backbone plant is a great way to become comfortable with the routine of plant life and gain experience with caring for plants. All you need to do is provide your plant with nutritious, well-drained soil, a well-draining pot, and bright indirect sunlight and you should be good to go. This plant will provide amazing foot-shaped flowers.
Texas A&M University: Euphorbia tithymaloides L. Devil’s Backbone (Pedilanthus tithymaloides, Tithymalus tithymaloides)
North Carolina State University: Euphorbia tithymaloides (Devil’s-backbone, Japanese Poinsettia, Redbird Flower, Slipper Flower)
Iowa State University: Euphorbia tithymaloides
*image by warat42/depositphotos