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 botanical name of zigzag plant is Euphorbia tithymaloides (formerly Pedilanthus tithymaloides). Zigzag plant should be planted outdoors in fall and winter. Zigzag Plant is also known as Devil’s backbone plant, Slipper flower, Lady’s slipper, Redbird flower, redbird cactus, Jewbush, buck-thorn, cimora misha, Christmas candle, fiddle flower, ipecacuahana, Jacob's ladder, Japanese poinsettia, Jew's slipper, milk-hedge, myrtle-leaved spurge, Padus-leaved clipper plant, red slipper spurge, slipper flower, slipper plant, slipper spurge and timora misha.
The slow-growing plant has green and white variegated leaves that may sometimes develop a rosy blush tint in warm weather. Located oppositely on the stem, the leaf is a simple angiosperm leaf. About 35 to 75 mm in length, each leaf is sessile (attached directly to the plant). Glabrous leaves are acuminate and smooth, with entire edges. Euphorbia tithymaloides are pinnately veined. It also has dramatic, colorful leaf bracts that look like slipper-shaped flowers, as well as unusual "crooked" yet symmetrical stems. 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. All parts of the zigzag plant are toxic to pets (including dogs and cats) and humans if eaten. Avoid touching the plant's milky sap, as it may lead to skin irritation; however, you can touch the green leaves without fear of toxicity.
Table of Contents
2 - 8 feet
1 - 3 feet
6.1 - 7.8
There are several recognized subspecies. These include:
Euphorbia tithymaloides tithymaloides
Euphorbia tithymaloides angustifolia
Euphorbia tithymaloides bahamensis
Euphorbia tithymaloides jamaicensis
Euphorbia tithymaloides padifolia
Euphorbia tithymaloides parasitica
Euphorbia tithymaloides retusa
Euphorbia tithymaloides smallii
Subspecies are usually identifiable by their leaves, which come in several types such as laurel-like and variegated and which can be tinged with white or red.
In 2012, Cacho and Baum described the first example of a ring species in plants. They showed that Euphorbia tithymaloides has reproduced and evolved in a ring through Central America and the Caribbean, meeting in the Virgin Islands where they appear to be morphologically and ecologically distinct.
Planting Zigzag Plant
To plant Devil's Backbone start with a good quality, commercial potting soil. These are usually lighter in weight than topsoil, sterile and pest-free. Many are available with a mild starter fertilizer in the mix.
Select a container with a drainage hole or be prepared to drill holes for drainage if there are none.
Prepare the container by filling with potting soil up to 2” (5cm) from the rim of the planter. Remove the plant from its pot.
Make a small hole in the soil slightly larger than the Zig-Zag plant's root ball either by hand or using a trowel. Insert the plant into the hole and press soil firmly around the roots and just covering the root ball. When all the plants are potted, water thoroughly to settle the soil and give plants a good start. Place plant in a reliably sunny location.
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.
Pruning and Propagating Zigzag Plant
In terms of pruning, zigzag plants require very little care. Pruning troublesome branches with clean garden shears is as easy as trimming. However, you should be careful with sap. After sorting, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and wipe them. Touching your eyes without properly washing your hands can cause damage to your eyes.
Propagating Zigzag Plant
You can use root cuttings to produce new devil’s backbone plants. The entire propagation time—from taking a cutting to transplanting the new plant—will take about two months. Follow these steps to propagate a new plant:
Take a cutting. In the spring or early summer, take a cutting about four inches in length from a piece of new growth stem on your devil’s backbone plant. Cut the plant between leaves using clean, sterilized scissors.
Allow the cutting to dry. Let the cutting sit undisturbed on a windowsill or a counter for a few days so the cut end scabs over.
Plant the stem cutting. Dip the cut end in rooting hormone if you wish before planting the cutting in a well-draining potting soil consisting of succulent mix and perlite. Allow the stem to develop a new root system before you attempt to transfer it to a new container.
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.
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.
Garden and house use
Euphorbia tithymaloides was introduced as a garden plant prior to 1688. The first record of it growing in a garden was in Amsterdam. It is primarily used as an outdoor garden border plant, but certain varieties do well indoors. Because of the plant's toxicity, gardeners are cautioned to wear goggles, gloves, long-sleeved shirts, and long pants.
Hummingbirds are attracted to the plant's flowers. Cabbage worms are particularly fond of the plant's leaves.
Municipalities have planted Euphorbia tithymaloides in landfills, toxic waste sites, and along roadsides because it is one of the few plants which can thrive in these more difficult environments.
The root is known to be a powerful emetic. A proteolytic enzyme known as pedilanthain can be extracted from the plant's latex, and has been shown in experiments to be effective against intestinal worms and to reduce inflammation when ingested. In 1995, a galactose-specific lectin was purified from the plant's latex, and indications are that it might be useful in combatting diabetes mellitus.
In folk medicine, tea has been brewed from the leaves which has been used to treat asthma, persistent coughing, laryngitis, mouth ulcers, and venereal disease. Tea brewed from the root has been used as an abortifacient. The latex has been used topically to treat calluses, ear ache, insect stings, ringworm, skin cancer, toothache, umbilical hernias, and warts. None of these uses has been scientifically verified as effective. In the West Indies, a few drops of the latex is added to milk and used as an emetic.
In Peru, the plant is known as "cimora misha", "timora misha", or "planta magica". It is sometimes added to drinks made from mescaline-containing Trichocereus cacti (although Euphorbia tithymaloides has no known psychoactive properties).
The fast-growing nature of the plant, coupled with its ability to grow in relatively toxic soils, had led scientists in India to investigate its usefulness as a "petrocrop", a plant which could yield biofuel compounds for internal combustion engines.