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Pedilanthus tithymaloides aka Devil's Backbone
Pedilanthus tithymaloides aka Devil's Backbone
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Pedilanthus tithymaloides aka Devil's Backbone

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There are numerous fun and descriptive names for the devil’s backbone houseplant. In an effort to describe the blooms, devil’s backbone has been called red bird flower, Persian lady slipper, and Japanese poinsettia. Descriptive monikers for the foliage include rick rack plant and Jacob’s ladder. 

The scientific name for this plant, Pedilanthus tithymaloides, means foot-shaped flower. The plant is native to the American tropics but only hardy in USDA zones 9 and 10. It makes a superb houseplant with its 2-foot (0.5 m.) tall stems, alternate leaves and colorful “flowers” which are actually bracts or modified leaves. The leaves are lance shaped and thick on wiry stems. The bract color may be white, green, red, or pink. The plant is a member of the spurge family. No devil’s backbone plant info would be complete without noting that the milky sap may be poisonous to some people. Care should be exercised when handling the plant.

Devil’s backbone houseplant likes bright indirect sunlight. Plant in direct sun in fall and winter, but give it a little protection from stinging hot rays in spring and summer. Just turning the slats on your blinds can be enough to keep the tips of the leaves from sizzling.

Water the plants when the top few inches of soil feel dry. Keep it only moderately moist, yet not soggy. The plant produces the best growth with a once per month fertilizer solution diluted by half.

Devil’s backbone houseplant does not need to be fed in the dormant seasons of fall and winter.

Choose a draft free location in the home when growing Pedilanthus indoors. It doesn’t tolerate cold breezes, which can kill off the tips of the growth.