A small potted plant with long green leaves. The leaves have scalloped edges and look reddish/shriveled from cold, but it's definitely alive.

The scariest plant I know

Let me tell you something about a plant named Kalanchoe daigremontiana, also known as Mother of Thousands, or (appropriately) more ominously Devil’s Backbone.

I believe Devil’s Backbone is a legitimately scary plant. The scariest plant I’ve ever encountered.

The first thing you should know is that it’s toxic. It contains cardiac glycosides, and big doses can kill pets, livestock, and small children…in theory. Fatal doses are incredibly rare. But I can’t imagine it’s very much fun to consume cardiac glycosides and stay alive, either.

There are many more toxic plants, but Devil’s Backbone is also difficult to contain: every single scallop around its edge will make babies. You can see a few are still attached. Most are in the soil, already establishing new roots, which will produce more plants with scalloped edges, each of which will…you guessed it.

Babies are small and lightweight. They travel easily. They will fill the pots of your other plants. They will jump on your clothes to go outside.

So you can’t really contain this poisonous plant…unless you’re ready for it.

Surely, everyone who owns Devil’s Backbone is ready for it, right?

Ha ha! The scariest thing of all is that you can find Kalanchoe daigremontiana and its close cousin, K. delagoensis, at pretty much any major chain hardware store that also sells plants. You can find much-prettier variegations than this. They’re so attractive! Especially when they flower.

There is no warning about the toxicity or prolificity of this plant in the places where it sold. NONE. (There are a lot of very toxic plants sold with no warning. For instance, lilies can cause kidney failure and death for house cats within hours of taking a single sniff of the pollen. If you knew that, you didn’t learn it from the store where you bought lilies.) (NEVER have lilies in the house if you have cats. EVER.)

Anyway, I have been scared of Devil’s Backbone for a long time, so I’ve never stopped thinking about it, and become progressively obsessed, and now here we are.

I bought myself a Devil’s Backbone.

It came from TX, around 1700 miles away. The package got lost on its route to me. It took two weeks to arrive in the coldest winter Nevada has experienced for years. I fully expected to open the box and find a dead black frozen plant! I was at peace with this outcome: “Perhaps Fate is telling me I should not have gotten this cursed plant,” I thought to myself. “I accept the Judgment of Fate.”

When my keys first penetrated the box’s tape, I was struck by the strongest botanical scent. I was convinced that was the scent of rot.

I kept cutting.

I found the box brimming with cotton, packed totally full. As I pulled the cotton away, the babies started dropping. Little green cardiac glycoside bombs on my counter everywhere. Still green. Many rooted.

And within the cotton, a slightly cold, little shriveled, but mostly healthy Devil’s Backbone.

Fate might have said “You don’t want this,” but the Devil herself said, “Oh, you want me. You know you want me.”

SM Reine is a New York Times Bestselling author of mythpunk urban fantasy romance novels. She is addicted to video games, especially Crusader Kings II, and has too many loud-mouth opinions about movies. She lives in Nevada with a small army of furry monsters.

Leave a Reply