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Anne K Moore
Photographs Anne K Moore

Red Bird plant sounds kind of nice. On the other hand, Devil’s Backbone might give some gardeners pause. They are both the same plant. Talk about conjuring up very different images with common names.

For the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why this plant is also known as Japanese Poinsettia. Zigzag Plant, yes, but Slipper Spurge? There are still more names in the common vernacular for this plant found growing over much of Southern Florida. Yet this plant is considered unusual in most of the U.S.

I know my plant as Devil's Backbone (Pedilanthus tithymaloides) a euphorbia, which is where the spurge part of Slipper Spurge comes from. That also accounts for the Poinsettia in Japanese Poinsettia. Why “Japanese” when it comes from Central America is a mystery to me.

A gardener friend gave me my Variegated Devil’s Backbone as a cutting, a friend who passed away two years ago. (If you want to be remembered, share your plants. I see his garden when I look at this plant he shared with me.)

The Devil’s Backbone and Zigzag names come from the zzz’s of the stems, which are quite fleshy. This is where the water is stored, as sap. Sun and cold cause the leaves to turn pink. It thrives in Southern California, Southern Florida, and Southern Texas. The rest of us can grow this unusual plant as a houseplant indoors and to add a tropical flair outdoors during the warm days of summer. This is an all-season plant, perfect for indoor growing conditions and outdoor sometimes care.

After a bit of research, I discovered two things. First, this plant will bloom with red flowers resembling either a slipper or a bird, perhaps depending on how you squint at it. The second thing I learned, I have been too good to my plant so it has never blossomed.

My Devil/zigzag/slipper/bird plant spends summers out of doors in the shade of a porch. I water it when it dries out so it becomes a lovely, lush plant. If I grew it in full sun and didn’t give it water when it was dry, it would most likely lose its leaves but it would probably show me those odd flowers on the ends of the stems by mid-summer. I think I will take a softwood cutting and grow another plant just to see what the flowers look like. I like my plant leafy!

Follow Anne K Moore and Linda Weiss as they blog at Diggin’ It at the Christian Science Monitor website.

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