Baby’s Tears. Measles Plant. Flamingo Plant. Freckle Face. Nosy Neighbor. Pink-dot. Spotted Dog.
This cute little polka-dotted plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) has been making its way across the world and into people’s hearts. When I saw a lovely little set of plants in a brick-lined open air alley & plant shop, I knew they had to come home with me.
When I first got them home, I stuck them into a spot where the balcony’s frame met with another window. The tiny 4″ plastic pot let the plant sit mostly out of direct sun, with bright light coming in from the left and right. When I get a new plant and don’t quite know how to take care of it, this is usually my safe spot: no drafts, no direct light, bright enough for most plants to get by.
Within a day, it started to show some browning at the edge of a few of the older leaves. A day later, more leaves began to brown and the already-brown began to split in half up the middle. A few days later, I saw some new little stems growing up from near the dirt, with tight bunches of little leaves. With the plant seemingly stabilizing, I decided it was time to move it up to a slightly bigger (and terra cotta) pot.
The pot has two colors in it – a milky-white on green that seems to sunburn or age a little quicker, and a red on green that doesn’t actually clash. The biggest leaves are nearest the dirt, about an inch and a half long, an inch wide. Going up the stems to the top, the leaves get smaller until they’re tiny specks – almost a bud. I’m thinking that, eventually, the bottom few inches of stem will end up having no leaves. With the way the oldest and biggest ones browned when it first arrived, that section of plant already started balding a little early.
It now sits in a terra cotta pot about 6″ across. I didn’t want to overpot it when I first moved it up to a new home. It gets moderate light in the first couple hours of the day this time of year, steadily increasing until about 11. Towards noon, it gets licks of direct of direct light for the next 4 hours or so. By sunset, it’s back to indirect (and orange).
The Polka Dot Plant is an herbaceous perennial. If it’s grown in an area with extreme conditions, it may become an annual instead. The leaves are the biggest focus for most gardeners – soft, relatively small, and studded with a splash of unusual colors. The plant will grow fairly straight-up and tall if left untended. Normally, though, these plants respond well to some pretty regular pruning and shaping. Most often, you’ll see these plants as a sort of short, shrubby mass of colors. It grows rapidly and readily from cuttings, is self-seeding, and can re-sprout from the dirt if the stems are pruned all the way back. It can withstand full sun or no direct sun, and somewhere in between those two extremes lies the perfect amount of light to make your leaf colors really pop.
Polka Dot Plants come in many colors. A few varieties are:
Camina – dark green with red spots
Confetti – green with spots of white, pink, rose, red, or burgundy
Pink Brocade – green with mottled pink spots
Splash – mixes of greens with spots in pinks, reds, or whites
This plant is described as always wanting to get over there, and be nosy, and see what the other plants are up to. That’s (probably) why it’s known as the Nosy Neighbor. That, or your neighbor will keep wanting to be nosy and see what your bright and colorful plant is up to.
Enjoys some humidity around the foliage and in the soil (at least 50% humidity, if you’ve got control over that).
Water when the top 1/2″ of soil is dry, but don’t let it stay too soggy. I’m letting the plant sip a bit of water every few days, then flushing the pot every couple weeks. Some sources say that it’s almost impossible to overwater this plant, though I’m not sure I believe them. Underwatering may cause it to brown and drop foliage, but it’ll grow back remarkably quickly when the water is added in.
Reduce the watering in winter, when the growth slows.
Part shade, especially if grown outdoors. If it ends up in full sun for too long, the colors will start to fade on the leaves.
If you’re growing it indoors, an east or south facing window should do fine. Mine is facing southwest, but it seems fine enough.
Lower light will give the most vibrant colors, but will also cause the plant to become leggy. Play around with your fast-growing polka dot plant to find the best growing spot. Of course, too little light could also make the colorful dots disappear entirely.
Made for warmer climates (hardiness zones 10-11, so… above freezing at the very least), and are happiest around 70 to 80 degrees. If this plant is outside, it may die back during the cold season. If this is the case where you are, you can treat this plant like an annual – it’s not going to get much bigger once its growth slows.
This plant is more of a tropical and sub-tropical type.
If the plant gets too hot, it will wilt due to too much transpiration.
Enjoys regular fertilizing from spring to fall – the growing season. If you’ve got compost, this plant certainly wouldn’t mind a refresh in the spring. If your plant is indoors or in a pot, add in a touch of general houseplant fertilizer every month. This plant grows quickly and pretty much continually – it’ll make use of the food you give it! Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer to encourage foliage growth, as opposed to a general (which might help with flowers too much).
Slightly acidic, around 5.6 – 6.5. Organically rich and well-draining. Regular potting mix is usually fine.
Right now I’m relying on the smallness and breathability of the pot to help the soil drain. If I pot it in anything bigger, I’ll add a touch more sand or pumice to the soil and some gravel to the bottom of the pot.
Root & Pot
This plant allegedly grows quite quickly. Mine has echoed that consensus. 4″ to 6″ pots fit the best. Anything larger, and this plant may end up spreading as it self-seeds, though the individual plants won’t need more room than this on their own. I currently have two colors in a single 6″ pot, and each has around 4 stems coming out of the dirt at any given time.
Size & Speed
When mature, Polka Dots reach around a foot or two tall and one foot wide. They can get a little leggy if they’re allowed to grow like normal. To make them a little bushier, pinch back the top two leaves on each stem every week. You can also pinch off the summer flowers to encourage more foliage growth. You can also just prune much more heavily as you see fit, and the plant will usually sprout back from the dirt within a few weeks.
This plant grows quickly and puts out tons of leaves. It’ll require constant pruning if you want it to look perfect. If you don’t mind it having a mix of stem lengths and leaf conditions, you can let it go wild. Mine turns towards the window noticeably every single day, and I have to rotate it daily to prevent it from leaning too much to one side.
This plant grows larger leaves toward the bottom. As it gets taller, the leaves steadily get smaller and smaller, eventually turning into stalks where flower are more likely to pop up. The stems will get woody with age, but restarting from cuttings is easy enough that most plants aren’t allowed to go this far.
These plants can be propagated by seeds or stem cuttings.
If you’re planting the seeds – spread them out on warm, moist soil in the spring. They should sprout in a few days, and the seedlings should be ready to transplant in a few weeks. They grow pretty quickly.
Otherwise, you can get a cutting from a stem at least 5″ long, with the terminal growth node attached (the growing tip). Dip the cut end in some rooting hormone and place it in warm, moist dirt. Roots should start going in about a week. Alternatively, place it in a soilless medium such as sphagnum moss or a cup of water. Transplant the rooted plant as if it were a mature plant.
This plant is constantly trying to grow. You don’t really need the rooting hormone. Some people like to use it because it’ll often contain an anti-fungal chemical, helping ensure each cutting works. Of course, you could take a few extra cuttings and just see what happens naturally. More than likely, you’ll have more cuttings than you know what to do with. Especially if you perform a heavy pruning.
Flower & Fruit
Blooms sporadically throughout the summer. They have small lilac flowers with an almost comically-curved lower tongue. Seeds will form in perfect conditions… or sometimes randomly while indoors. The flowers are self-fertilizing, and seeds will fall in the same pot or into neighboring pots.
You can pinch off the flowers to encourage the plant to devote more energy to foliage growth, or pinch off the entire flowering stem if you don’t want to pick out the individual flowers.
Some reports on the internet describe this as toxic to pets. This could simply be pesticides and other chemical residue on plants from growing centers. I can’t find anyone that lists which toxins or effects might occur, but most people seem to agree not to eat it or feed it to pets. I’ll say the same – don’t eat it. This plant is for looking at.
Pests & Diseases
Scale, whiteflies, mealy bugs, and aphids.
If your plant is growing indoors and is in poor conditions, it’ll be more likely to draw the interest of these pests. Plants grown outdoors or in good conditions are less likely to be damaged.
Keep an eye out for moving bugs, holes, discoloration, or torn foliage. This could indicate the presence of pests.
A leggy plant (with long stem spacing between leaves, and not much foliage) is in too little light, or needs more pruning.
You can start over with this plant a few different ways. If the stems start flowering, or if they get too leggy, or maybe if you’ve got some pests – you can cut the plant back almost to the dirt. It’ll put up some new shoots pretty quickly and not even act annoyed. You can use those cut pieces as cuttings to propagate new plants. It’s unstoppable.
My Polka Dots sprouted 4 new stems from the dirt a week after I transplanted it into a bigger pot. Really, this plant is a beast.
I have a favor to ask…
If you enjoy reading this blog, please click on an advertisement or three. Revenue from these ads are used to pay for the site and to buy ever more plants. You don’t have to buy anything from the ads, of course (and I’m not selling anything…). Though, if you happen to click on something you’ll enjoy – that’s wonderful! Right now (because of COVID), us freelancers need all the help that we can get.
Categories: Growing Guides