Devil’s Backbone – Care

Q: Please advise how I might save what is left of my poor Devil’s backbone plant (Pedilanthus tithymaloides). During my wife’s fight with cancer it was totally forgotten in a dim room with no water for fifteen months. It has a few pink leaves, all up near the tips of the five foot tall stalks. Should I cut some or all of the stalks back? In years past it lived on our shaded front porch in summer.

A: It’s remarkable the determination to live that people and plants possess. Your euphorbia has demonstrated the genetic ability to survive under very poor conditions. Even without light and water for more than a year, it still has life. I think you can nurse it back to health with a small effort.

The first thing it needs is light and plenty of it. Move it to the sunniest window possible. Cut two of the tallest branches back by half – even if they have no leaves afterwards. Avoid touching the irritating milky sap that exudes from the stem. Oddly enough, scientists have found that this latex-like juice could be a natural source of hydrocarbons similar to gasoline.

Give it one application of houseplant fertilizer at half strength now and water it every two weeks until late April. Allow the soil to dry between watering. When outdoor temperatures are above fifty degrees at night you can take it outdoors and prune the whole plant back to about twelve inches. Keep it on the front porch or in dappled sunshine for the summer. Fertilize once again in June. It should have lots of new branches and leaves by September, when you can bring it indoors for the winter.

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