An eye-catching, evergreen shrub, the Polka Dot Plant is native to Madagascar, East Asia and South Africa. Also known as ‘Freckle Face’ due to its spotty foliage, the polka dot plant is a member of the Hypoestes family.
The polka dot plant can reach a height and spread of 3ft if grown in optimal conditions. This makes them an ideal option to fill raised beds and floral borders. Polka dot plants can also be used to add color and contrast to green, fern filled borders. They also work well when placed in front of ivy covered or living walls.
The attractive, speckled foliage of the polka dot plant. For growers the plant’s foliage provides the most interest. The plant’s flowers are considered insignificant and are often pinched out before blooming.
As well as adding interest to gardens, these plants also thrive when growing indoors. Indoor cultivation allows gardeners in cooler climates to better provide the heat and humidity the plants crave. However, if you are growing indoors, the plants will be smaller than if they were outside.
General Information the Hypoestes
Did you know that there are more than 100 species in the genus? The genus derives its name from the Greek word hypo, and this means under. Estia means a house for flowers with leaves surrounding it. It originated in Madagascar, but you can now find it all over the world. The plant’s polka dotted pattern on the leaves gave it the name of the Polka Dot plant. The most common cultivar of this particular plant has pink spots on green leaves, but you’ll find a large range available.
You can get cultivars that feature bright red spots on the leaves, and some have a variety of colored spots on their leaves with a deeper green background. Some have purple colored leaves while others have pink spots, and some have larger spots of colors in red, white, or pink. You can also get marbled leaves, and the plant will produce very small purple-tinged flowers. However, they’re insignificant when you compare them to the leaves, so many people just snip them off.
Different Varieties of Polka Dot Plant
There are a number of varieties commonly available in garden and DIY stores. The different varieties produce foliage in different, rich shades, as well as different sizes and shapes. Despite their different appearances, plant care is largely the same whichever variety you choose.
One of the most eye-catching varieties is Splash Series. As the name suggests these plants produce vivid green foliage marked with large splashes of pinks, whites, and reds. The Confetti Series is similar to the Splash Series. However, its markings are more spread across the foliage, like a shower of confetti.
Pink Dot produces pleasant pink spots on green leaves. Similarly Carmina produces red spots. Finally, Wit is a fascinating variety, producing white leaves with an attractive marble pattern.
Different varieties of the plant produce dappled foliage in a range of colors and varieties. Caring correctly for the plants, as well as making sure they get lots of light, helps to make the colors and the patterns more intense.
How to Grow a Polka Dot Plant
It is always a good idea to re-pot plants as soon after purchase as possible. Often store purchased plants are on the verge of becoming pot bound.
Plants growing in containers require regular re-potting. This helps to keep them healthy and prevents them from becoming pot bound. Plants that are pot bound will dry out quickly. Their growth habit will also slow or cease completely. The most noticeable sign that your plants are becoming pot bound is that its roots will begin to protrude from the drainage holes in the bottom of the container.
These plants thrive in moist, rich soil. A well-draining organic potting soil is ideal. You can also work compost materials into a general purpose potting soil. This enables you to create your own rich, potting mix.
Select a pot that is slightly larger than the one currently holding your plant. Ideally the new pot should be at least 2 inches deeper and wider than the original pot. This gives the root system plenty of room to grow into.
The new pot should also be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. Adding some pebbles to the bottom of the pot will help to further improve drainage.
How to Re-pot
Fill the container about one third full with fresh potting mix.
Carefully remove the polka dot plant from the original container, being careful not to damage the root system. If you find it difficult to remove, try gently squeezing the pot. This loosens the soil and helps to release the roots.
Gently brush away any dirt from the roots and check for signs of disease. Unhealthy or dead roots can be removed.
Place the polka dot plant in the middle of the new pot. The top of the root system should sit about an inch below the top of the pot. Fill the pot with more fresh potting mix.
Gently firm the soil down, being careful not to overly compact it. Water the re-potted plant well, until water drains from the bottom of the pot. Once it has been well watered, return the pot to its usual position.
- Tip: You can move new plants to slightly larger pots right away, as long as your container has drainage holes. Put the nursery pot into a catchpot. Put smaller rocks in the bottom of the catchpot to keep the inner pot above the drainage water to stop from drawing the plant. Repot older plants in the spring or summer as they outgrow their containers.
Gardeners in warmer climates will be able to grow these plants outside. Place the plants in rich, well-draining soil. Before planting work in lots of organic matter, such as homemade compost. This helps to improve drainage and also gives the plant a nutritional boost.
Dig a hole in the soil large enough to comfortably hold the root system of the plant. The hole should be deep enough that when placed in the hole, the top of the root system sits just below the level of the soil.
Once position, fill the hole in and water well. Mulch around the base of the plant. This helps to suppress weed growth while aiding in soil moisture retention. Organic mulches also break down over time, returning nutrients to the soil. This gives your plants an extra nutritional boost.
How to Care for Polka Dot Plants
The polka dot plant is pleasingly easy to grow. The plant’s main drawback is its relatively short lifespan. Often, after flowering, the plants will become dormant. In some cases they may die away completely. Picking off the buds before the plants can flower helps to prolong lifespan. This is a common action if you are growing the polka dot plant as a houseplant.
The plant’s relatively short lifespan should not put you off adding one to your collection. Both houseplants and those growing in gardens are also easily propagated. This means that if the plants do die away you can continue to enjoy the foliage of the polka dot plant for many years to come.
The Ideal Position
The polka dot plant produces its best color when placed in a low light position. However, this can cause the plants to become leggy. Ideally you should try to position your polka dot plant in a location where it can access bright, indirect light. This position helps to keep your plants healthy and vibrant.
Placing a polka dot plant in a position that is either too bright, or not bright enough, will cause the plants colors to fade. If you are growing these plants as houseplants, try placing them several feet from a south or east facing window. Removing plants from windowsills and placing them slightly further back into a room allows them to enjoy lots of light without the potentially harmful heat.
Ideally, the temperature should average around 75 ℉. While the plant’s can cope with minor fluctuations in temperature, they should never be exposed to temperatures below 60 ℉.
These plants thrive in humidity. To help keep conditions humid, regularly mist the plants foliage. A gentle spray is enough to raise humidity levels without damaging the foliage.
Finally, polka dot plants thrive in humid conditions. Relative humidity shouldn’t drop below 50%. Placing your plants on a tray filled with pebbles and water will help to raise humidity levels. The plants also benefit from regular misting with water through a spray such as the Yebeauty Plant Mister.
The polka dot plant thrives in moist soil. If the soil is allowed to dry out plants will begin to wilt. Plants can usually be revived by watering but it is best not to let them dry out in the first place.
Placing a layer of organic mulch, such as homemade compost, around the plant’s base can help to keep the soil moist. Additionally, as the mulch breaks down it gives your polka dot plants a nutritional boost.
Don’t allow the soil to become overly soggy. Allowing plants to sit in wet soil for a prolonged period can cause root rot.
If you are unsure when to water, wait until the top inch of soil is dry. The easiest way to gauge this is to stick your finger into the soil. A soil moisture measure, such as the Bearbro 3-in-1 meter, will provide a more accurate reading.
Remember small, or terracotta pots, will dry out quicker than larger or plastic containers.
When watering, water only the soil around the plant. Damp leaves can become damaged or diseased.
If you choose to allow your plants to flower, reduce water as the flowers fade. After flowering the plants will either become dormant or die away. Should new growth begin to emerge, resume your watering routine.
Feeding Your Plants
Particularly when growing in containers, polka dot plants are heavy feeders. A general purpose indoor plant food, such as the Miracle-Gro All Purpose Plant Food is ideal. It is also water soluble, meaning that it is easily incorporated into your watering routine.
To use the water soluble feed, dilute it to at least half its strength. Apply the plant food solution once a fortnight during the growing season. Vigorous growing plants may require feeding once a week.
Pruning and Flowering
Regular pruning helps to keep the polka dot plant neat and healthy. Pinch out any off-shoots once they reach 15 inches in length. Pinching out helps to encourage a neat, bushy growth habit. Without regular care and attention the plants can grow large and shrub-like.
While some growers like the flowers of the polka dot plant, others regard them as insignificant, especially when compared to the foliage. For this reason, many people choose to remove the flower buds as soon as they appear. Pinching off the plant’s flowers also helps to prolong its lifespan.
If you live in a colder climate that has winters that routinely freeze but you want to keep growing this plant outside, you should treat them as annuals. Another option you have available is to put them into pots or containers that you can then bring inside during the fall months. They won’t survive temperatures that fall below and stay below 60°F.
Common Pests and Diseases
The polka dot plant can fall victim to aphid, mealy bug and whitefly infestations. An application of warm soapy water will cure plants of most infestations. Alternatively you can also make your own insecticidal soap. Applying this to the foliage of the plant will cure infestations without damaging the appearance of the plant.
Powdery mildew may appear on the plant’s foliage. This is a sign that you are over watering the plant. Reduce the amount you water and frequency with which you water to resolve this issue. Severely affected leaves will struggle to recover and are best trimmed away to help improve the appearance of the plant. A healthy plant will soon produce new foliage to fill the gaps.
Polka Dot Plant Propagation
These plants are easily propagated, either from cuttings or from seed.
Growing From Seed
To propagate from seed, sow the seeds undercover in early spring. Sowing under grow lights gives the seeds extra encouragement. It can also help you to maintain a temperature and light levels.
Germination takes place when the temperature averages between 70 and 75°F.
While you are waiting for the seeds to germinate, keep the soil moist.
Following germination pinch out the weaker seedlings. Allow the seedlings to grow on in a light position, keeping the soil evenly moist. As the seedlings grow they will require regular re-potting.
Propagation From Cuttings
Propagation can also be done from cuttings.
To take a cutting you will need a sharp scissors or secateurs. A sharp instrument enables you to make a clean, precise cut.
With your chosen instrument cut a stem tip away from the polka dot plant. This cutting should be approximately 5 inches in length. Remove the leaves from the lower end of the cutting.
Dipping the bottom of the cutting in rooting hormone helps to encourage propagation. While this is not necessary it can help to speed up the process.
Place the cutting either in a glass of fresh water or a coarse potting mix. A cactus mix is ideal. Keep the soil around the cutting moist. Allowing the soil to dry out can cause the cutting to fail. If you are rooting in water remember to change the water regularly.
Successful cuttings will begin to produce roots within a week. Once roots are present the cutting can be transplanted into a container filled with a fresh potting soil mix. Following transplanting care for the cutting as you would a large polka dot plant.
Easy to care for the polka dot plant is a great place to begin your houseplant collection. In warmer climates it can also be used to add color and interest to a raised bed.
Design and Display Tips
When it comes to this plant, there are many ways you can add them to your landscape or home. A few popular ideas you can consider include but are not limited to:
- In a garden bed, put this plant as a mass planting. They are best planted this way, and you can create a nice groundcover, along shaded walkways as an edging, or at the front of the garden bed as a living border.
- Tuck the plant into a planter with other flowering plants or foliage to add a surprising burst of color and textural contrast. Don’t be afraid to mix and match colors, sizes, and growth habits to fill out the planters.
- Put them in spots as underplantings beneath a canopy of shrubs or taller plants. This works well to fill in dead space because they grow best in filtered shade.
- Add the polka dot plant to a dish garden or terrarium. Combine them with other foliage plants that grow best in a very humid environment. You’ll want to pinch them off frequently to keep them in scale with their slower-growing companion plants. If you don’t, they can take over.
Polka Dot Plant Common Issues
The same common issues that you’ll find with any tropical house plant you’ll find with the polka dot plant, even if they’re generally hardy overall. You’ll want to look out for the following common issues:
- Dry Soil – If your plant starts dropping leaves, this can be a sign that it has soil that is too dry. Since this plant is native to Madagascar, it likes consistent watering without dry or too soggy soil. Always pick a container that has good drainage holes so you can give your plant a good drink without worrying about drowning it. If you think you really overdid it, repot it right away with dry soil.
- Inadequate Lighting – Not enough light can lead to vegetation loss. The plant will produce leaves that are more green than pink or silver in an attempt to make up for the lack of light.
- Leggy Growth – These plants have a very large potential to grow leggy if you give them too much room to grow and spread out or not enough sunlight. Adequate lighting and weekly pruning sessions can help reduce leggy growth. Don’t forget to replant your cuttings like we outlined under the propagation section.
- Overwatering – This leads to black to yellow leaves and root rot.
- Too Much Sun – Curled up or wilted leaves usually signal that your plant is getting too much sunlight. Hypoestes phyllostachya is one cultivar that needs indirect but bright sunlight to keep the pretty coloring. However, always keep them out of direct sunlight.
- Underwatering – You’ll have wilted, curled leaves.
- Webbing – If you notice webbing between your plant’s leaves and stems, this is a sign of a spider mite infestation. Neem oil can help here. Spider mites can do a lot of damage to the plant in a short amount of time, and they’re not easy to get rid of. They’re attracted to your houseplants during the winter months because the indoor air is on the drier side. You can boost the humidity levels around your plant to ward them off, wash the plant in room temperature water, and cut off any badly infected pieces.
Reducing Legginess in Your Polka Dot Plant
If you notice that your Polka Dot plant is looking a little leggy, you can fix it relatively quickly. The plant usually isn’t in any major danger at this point, and it’s a relatively simple fix. All you have to do is figure out why your plant is growing leggy first. Once you do, it’s possible for you to make any necessary changes in your plant care routine to ensure it grows less leggy going forward.
Maybe you have to adjust the light, or you have the plant in far too large of a pot. Your soil and water can also be a problem. Go through everything one by one until you narrow down the issue and correct it.
If you get to a stage where your plant is leggier than you’d like it to be, you can prune it. Pruning is one way to make your plant look much better right away. Regular pruning can also stop the plant from producing flowers and they dying back. It encourages your plant to grow much more bushy by the base for a fuller look than growing straight upwards.
If your plant really needs it, you can prune the Polka Dot plant at any time during the year. However, you should note that if you prune the plant during the winter or autumn months, it’ll grow back very slowly. So, don’t prune it too hard during these times.
If you wait to prune it during the spring or summer months, the plant will bounce back quickly because these are the active growing months. During this time, lightly prune your plant once a month to keep it in check.
All you’ll need for this project is a pair of clean, sharp scissors. Many people also recommend using your fingers to pinch off growth. However, this can result in a ragged cut that increases your plant’s risk of infection. So, stick to using a pair of sharp, clean scissors.
How to Prune Your Polka Dot Plant
The first thing you should do is look at your plant and decide which parts should come off. Grip any new growth with a firm but gentle hand and pull it out gently to make enough space to slip the scissors through.
Once you have your scissors in position, snip at your plant’s stem just above a leaf set. Try to use a single snip to make very clean cuts each time you prune a part off. Never saw at the plant’s stems because this can cause more damage. Never remove more than a third of your plant’s growth, even if it’s leggy. Finally, concentrate on pruning more heavily in the spring and summer and try to avoid pruning in the fall or winter months.
Polka Dot Plant Frequently Asked Questions
Polka Dot Plant / Hypoestes phyllostachya / ヒポエステス by TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋) / CC BY 2.0 Even though this is a pretty hardy plant, it can look intimidating to grow. So, it’s common for people to have questions regarding it, and we’ve picked out a few good ones for you below.
- How much sun should you give your polka dot plant?
Grow your plants in an area that gets medium-light or bright light. It can tolerate being in bright spots inside, and it won’t get damaged with a little direct light on the foliage. They also tolerate low light fairly well. However, growing it in low lighting can make it grow leggy and tall.
- How long does a polka dot plant live?
Generally speaking, this plant won’t live much over a year or two before they flower. Once they do, they’ll bloom once and go into a dormant phase, and this is why a lot of people choose to get rid of them and start over.
- Does this plant purify the air?
This plant does have air purifying qualities. It does a decent job of helping to clean and purify the air directly around it. So, if you’re creating a plant collection specifically to improve your indoor air, don’t forget to add one or two of these ones.
- Is the polka dot plant poisonous to cats?
If your cat were to chew on the leaves of this plant, it’s generally considered to be safe. However, should they start eating a big amount of this plant, they can develop minor digestive issues like diarrhea and vomiting.
Easy to grow and attractive to look at, the polka dot plant is a great addition to any houseplant collection. Their fascinating foliage also looks great when incorporated into a living wall or when placed against an ivy clad wall. The biggest drawback for growers is the plant’s relatively short lifespan. Removing buds before they can flower helps to prolong the plants lifespan, allowing you to enjoy its fascinating foliage for longer.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.