Devil’s Backbone, Jacob’s Ladder, Slipper Flower

Devil’s Backbone is a succulent shrub with thick zigzag stems native to dry tropical forests of Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and northern South America.

Pedilanthus fleshy bract-cups are shaped like pink slippers and are only open at the tip. Pedilanthus, literally “slipper flower”, are members of the Euphorbiaceae family. This subtropical succulent is a distant relative of  poinsettias. Devil’s Backbone grows 2′ to 4′ tall and 2′ to 3′ wide. It has 1″ to 3″ long leaves and makes an excellent potted plant or low shrub.

Pedilanthus is available in two varieties, green and variegated. The variegated form takes on a pinkish tint during cooler weather. Scroll down to see how they get gasoline from the Slipper Flower plant.

BONUS GREEN FACTOID: “Pedilanthus tithymaloides was evaluated as an incessantly renewable and potential source of hydrocarbons. Extracts were obtained from successive extraction of whole plant material with solvents like petroleum ether (b.p. 60_80°C), benzene (b.p. 80°C) and ethyl acetate (76_78°C). A white amorphous mixture of hydrocarbons was obtained by elution of the column by petroleum ether (b.p. 60_80°C) which was found to be comparable with gasoline.” 

Potential use of Pedilanthus tithymaloides Poit. as a renewable resource of plant hydrocarbons

Plant Facts:

Common Name:  Devil’s Backbone, Jacob’s Ladder, Slipper Flower

Botanical Name:  Pedilanthus tithymaloides (ped e lan’ thus tith’ e ma loi’ dees), variegated

Family:  Euphorbiaceae (yoo-for-bee-AY-see-ay)

Plant Type:  Succulent Shrub

Origin: Sub-Tropical / Tropical Americas

Zones: 10 – 11, Sub-tropical — withstands light frost or short cold spells in protected areas

Height:  2′ – 4′

Rate of Growth: Medium

Salt Tolerance: Moderate

Soil Requirements:  Moderately fertile, very but well-drained soil

Water Requirements: Water freely spring to autumn, keep fairly dry in winter, very drought tolerant

Nutritional Requirements: Balanced liquid fertilizer monthly

Light Requirements: Indirect sun to partial shade

Form:  Upright, bushy, clump forming small shrub

Leaves:  Mid-green and white mottled, evergreen or deciduous, 1″ to 3″, oval to elliptic, pink tinged in cooler weather

Flowers:  Fleshy pink bract-cups resembling slippers to 1/2″ long, mid-spring – summer


Pests:  Leaf spots, powdery mildew, stem spots

Uses:  Shrub border, potted accent, possible renewable fuel source

Bad Habits: Milky sap in stems and leaves causes stomach distress if swallowed, may cause dermatitis

Cost:  $ to $$ — inexpensive

Propagation:   Stem-tip cuttings in summer

Source: American Horticultural Society A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants