Euphorbia tithymaloides

devil's backbone


Euphorbia tithymaloides

L. 1753

pronounced: yoo-FOR-bee-uh tith-ee-mal-OY-deez

(Euphorbiaceae — the spurge family)

synonym — Pedilanthus tithymaloides

(L.)Poit. 1812

pronounced: ped-ill-AN-thuss tith-ee-mal-OY-deez

common names: devil's backbone, redbird cactus

Spurge is derived from the old French espurgier, which itself comes from the Latin expurgare, to purge. The sap of many of the plants of this family have traditionally been used as a purgative, or laxative. Euphorbia was named for Euphorbus, a physician in ancient Greece; pedilanthus is derived from the Latin pes (pedis), a foot, and the Greek ανθος (anthos), a flower (shoe flower). Tithymaloides means ‘resembling Tithymalus’, the ancient name used by Pliny the Elder to describe spurge.

This is a shrub that can grow to about 2 m tall, with a succulent stem, and is deciduous, usually flowering when leafless. There are both green-leafed and variegated varieties. The plant is native in America from Florida to northern South America, and in most of the Antilles. It grows in a wide range of habitats: coastal scrub, thorn forest, dry deciduous forest, and in exposed rocky sites of more humid environments, particularly on limestone. It is extensively cultivated in parts of Thailand. In some parts of India, it has become invasive.

The plant has distinctive zig-zag stems (Devil’s Backbone), and the alternate leaves are pointed ovals up to about 5 cm long. In the variegated varieties, the leaves do a certain amount of colour changing depending on the available light, especially when grown indoors, usually with pink and cream coloration. The bracts are pinkish red in colour, and resemble small birds, hence the second common name.

The actual flowers are much reduced. They are in cymes clustered on the leafless stems, terminal or axillary, each one with many male flowers and one female flower.

The fruits are 3-locular, smooth, dry and dehiscent. There are 3 seeds per fruit, ovate-elliptical, glabrous, with smooth or sculptured surface. As with most Euphorbiaceae, there is a white latex that issues forth when parts of the plant are broken.

dangerous 2In Peru, it is called cimore misha, and is sometimes added to psychedelic mescaline brews. If pruning this species, or indeed any euphorbia, take care to avoid the latex from touching the skin, and especially the eyes. If you do get any sap on you, it is a good idea to wash it off immediately.

The plant propagates easily from cuttings.

Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2007-2010
Page last updated 28th December 2018