How to grow and care for the Polka Dot Plant

Hypoestes' Mix' Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryHypoestes' Mix' Picture courtesy Nu-leaf NurseryPolka dot plants have tons of personality and looks to kill! Their brightly spotted leaves stand out in the crowd, and they grow just as easily in bright light indoors as they do outdoors. Read more about cultivating them below. 

Hypoestes is a genus of flowering plants with about 150 species which are widely distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical lands around the Indian Ocean, including South Africa, Madagascar, and south-east Asia. In their native habitat these little herbaceous to small shrubby plants are found growing in the shelter of undergrowth and their boldly patterned leaves typically feature red colours.

The most well-known among these is the polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya), a native of Madagascar, and its many lovely cultivars. Extremely popular as a pot plant in the 80’s, the polka dot plant fell out of fashion for a while, but as with most plants, it made a comeback, becoming all the rage among avid plant collectors on social media.

This eye-catching little plant with its brightly variegated oval leaves is often also called: “Flamingo Plant”, “Freckle Face”, “Measles Plant”, and “Pink Dot”. It is low-growing, to a maximum height of about 30cm, with an equal spread, but what it may lack in stature it sure makes up for in colour. New garden cultivars are very compact and bushy, growing to a height of about 20cm and spreading 15cm, and there are several spotted or mottled varieties available in shades of blush, pink, rose, red, and white. In summer the bushes may produce tiny, solitary pink or purple flowers at the nodes, and the fruit is a many-seeded capsule which splits open to release the seeds.

Hypoestes 'Confetti' Compact Red. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofHypoestes 'Confetti' Compact Red. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofPolka dot plants are not considered invasive plants, however, because they thrive outdoors in moist, tropical and sub-tropical regions, they can become a weed there, and in certain parts of Australia they have been declared an invasive weed.

South Africa has its very own special one, Hypoestes Aristata, more commonly known as the “Ribbon Bush” or “Purple Haze”, “Lintbos”, “Seeroogblommetjie”, “uhlonyane”, “uhlololwane”. And although it has green leaves and is only a small evergreen shrub approximately 1m in height, from early to mid-winter when very little else is in flower in the garden, this stunner produces an intense show of purple blooms. Members can click here to read more about growing the ribbon bush.

In the Garden and Home:

Polka dot plants really ‘pop’ in the landscape, be it as a groundcover or as a contrast plant for other shrubs. They are perfect little ‘filler’ plants for mixed plantings in garden beds or pots, and will liven up any space, be it outdoors or indoors. In the UK this hypoestes was given the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Because the leaves come in several shades of pink, red and white, polka dot plants will blend effortlessly with many colour schemes and garden styles, and they are used to accentuate parts of the garden in much the same way as flowers would.

Indoors plants can be grown alone in small pots, or combined with other plants which have the same growth requirements.

Hypoestes 'Confetti' Compact Rose. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofHypoestes 'Confetti' Compact Rose. Picture courtesy Ball Straathof

Cultivation:

In subtropical and tropical regions the polka dot plant is a spreading perennial, which may become quite rampant and may have to be kept in check.  In cold and frosty regions of South Africa it is grown outdoors as a summer annual, and is planted out in spring once all danger of frost is over.

These plants are not especially difficult to grow, but require a protected spot in the garden where they will receive filtered bright light, but not too much direct sunlight which can burn the leaves.

They adapt to most fertile garden soils with good drainage, and once established will grow fairly quickly and easily as long as they are given sufficient water, as these plants have low drought tolerance. Watering is reduced during the colder winter months.

Feed every month from spring through summer with a general purpose liquid fertiliser, diluted to half the recommended strength.

Polka dot plants tend to get leggy, so to promote a bushier growth habit, cut or pinch back the top two leaves on the stems regularly. Although flowers sound nice, to extend the growing season of your polka dot plant, it's best to clip them off.  

Indoors:

A warm windowsill that gets a couple of hours of indirect, bright light a day is ideal for your polka dot and will keep the colours vibrant. Direct sunlight can burn the leaves, and in too much indirect light the colours will fade. On the other hand, in too little light the colours may disappear altogether, so move your pots around until you find the perfect place for your plant. Indoor temperatures around 18 to 20°C are ideal. Avoid cold drafts and direct airflow from heaters in the winter months.

Plant it in rich, well-drained potting soil and water regularly in hot weather, when the top 25 to 50% of the soil is dry. Try to keep the plant slightly moist but not soggy. If you let your plant dry out too much the leaves will go limp, but don’t worry, after a thorough watering they should soon perk up again.

Hypoestes 'Confetti' Compact White. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofHypoestes 'Confetti' Compact White. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofAverage household humidity is acceptable, but your plant will thrive with higher humidity levels indoors. You can boost the humidity with frequent misting, placing a humidifier nearby, or using a tray filled with pebbles and water nearby. Another way to increase relative humidity is to create a microclimate by grouping several humidity-loving plants together in a small area.

Feed every month from spring through summer with a general purpose liquid houseplant fertiliser, diluted to half the recommended strength. Prune the plant down if it grows too lanky.

Propagation:

One of the easiest methods of propagating the polka dot plant is to take some cuttings and place them in some water until they root, replacing the water weekly. Place the cuttings in a bright, sheltered spot, and plant them into little pots as soon as the stems have several roots showing.  Cuttings can also be rooted in seedling soil, with or without a rooting powder.

Hypoestes seed can be sown indoors, or in any warm spot about 8 to 10 weeks before the average last frost date for your region, and transplanted out when all danger of frost is over. In subtropical regions seed can be sown at any time. Seeds will germinate as quickly as 4 days when held at 20°C. The cotyledons of hypoestes seedlings are green, but the first set of true leaves will show colour, and this is the best time to transplant them from the seedling trays into small pots or 6-punnet trays, allowing them to mature until they are strong enough to transplant into the garden.

Hypoestes 'Splash' Select Pink. Picture courtesy Ball StraathofHypoestes 'Splash' Select Pink. Picture courtesy Ball Straathof

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If grown correctly the polka dot plant does not suffer from serious diseases or pests. However, watch out for common garden pests like mealybugs, aphids, spider mites, and thrips.

Typical diseases associated with polka dot plants are root rot, leaf-spot diseases, rust, blight, and powdery mildew.

Curling leaves and fading leaf colour are typically caused by too much sun.

Insufficient water and humidity can cause the polka dot plant's leaves to turn brown or to start drooping, as can too much sun. Hard water and over fertilisation are other reasons for a polka dot plant's leaves turning brown.

Overwatering causes yellowing of the plant's leaves, and can also lead to other severe problems like root rot and powdery mildew. If you notice leaves yellowing, reduce the amount of water you give the plant and make sure your soil has good drainage.

Warning:

Hypoestes are listed as non-toxic, but it is always advised that small children and pets be discouraged from chewing on plants.