How to Grow and Care for Polka Dot Plant

Hypoestes Phyllostachya on a windowsill

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

The polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya) is an eye-catching little plant with brightly spotted leaves that stand out against most other foliage. The most common polka dot plants feature leaves with a pink base color and green spots. But there are several spotted or mottled varieties with purple, white, red, and deeper colors and brighter contrast, so the plants pop even more. These plants are not especially difficult to grow, but because they are native to warm climates, many gardeners treat them as annuals and replace them with new plants each year. They're best planted in the spring. They also can be grown in containers as houseplants. They have a moderate growth rate and remain relatively small once mature, especially when grown indoors. In continental North America, they are not considered invasive; however, they have a vigorous growth rate in Australia and tropical climates, such as Hawaii, where they are a weed and have become invasive.

Common Names Polka dot plant, flamingo plant, freckle face, measles plant, pink dot
Botanical Name Hypoestes phyllostachya
Family Acanthaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous, perennial
Mature Size 1-2 ft. tall, about 1 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Partial
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic (5.6 to 6.5)
Bloom Time Summer or early fall
Flower Color Lilac or pink
Hardiness Zones 10 to 11
Native Area Madagascar
Toxicity Nontoxic
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Watch Now: How to Grow Hypoestes Phyllostachya (Polka Dot Plant) Indoors

Polka Dot Plant Care

Warm temperatures and humidity are key to growing polka dot plants. Expect to water regularly unless you get sufficient rainfall. This plant also needs regular feeding throughout the spring to fall growing season.

Polka dot plants bloom sporadically, typically during the summer, with small lilac or pink-colored flowers on spikes. Pinch off these flower spikes to keep the plant’s energy focused on growing its vibrant foliage. 

Invasive Species

Polka dot plants have become a problematic, aggressive grower in Queensland, Australia, and tropical climes, such as Hawaii and Central America. In the continental U.S., it's not invasive and safe to plant in-ground.

overhead shot of Hypoestes phyllostachya
The Spruce / Leticia Almeida 
closeup of a hypoestes phyllostachya
The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Light

When grown outdoors, polka dot plants like a spot with some shade. Pick a planting site that's not too bright, or else you can expect the foliage colors to fade, lessening the plant's ornamental value. Bright, indirect light is ideal indoors, such as from an east- or south-facing window. 

Soil

Polka dot plants prefer organically rich soil with good drainage. An all-purpose organic potting mix is typically suitable for these plants. Mix in some pumice or perlite to improve soil drainage.

Water

These plants like a moderate amount of moisture in the soil at all times. Avoid letting the soil completely dry out, which can cause the foliage to wilt and make the plant struggle to survive. Never let the soil become soggy, which can cause root rot and kill the plant. Water the plant when the top half-inch of soil has dried out. Give enough water to moisten the soil evenly. You will need to water container plants more frequently than in-ground plants. Slightly reduce watering in the winter and resume your routine once growth picks up again in the spring.

Temperature and Humidity

Polka dot plants are only hardy in USDA growing zones 10 and 11, preferring temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They should be planted outside in the spring after the threat of frost has passed and brought inside if you plan to overwinter them well before the first frost of the fall. These plants like humid conditions, preferring a minimum humidity level of 50%. If you need to raise the humidity, you can mist your plant’s leaves or place its pot on a tray filled with pebbles and water as long as the bottom of the pot isn’t touching the water.

Fertilizer

Feed container plants with an organic fertilizer designed for houseplants once a month during the warm growing season. These plants are heavy feeders. If planting in-ground, mix a layer of compost into the soil each spring.

Types of Polka Dot Plants

Within the main species, Hypoestes phyllostachya, there are many varieties; all are bred for their leaf coloration. They include:

  • ‘Camina’: Dark green and red-spotted leaves
  • ‘Confetti’: Leaves in green and spots of white, pink, rose, red, or burgundy
  • ‘Pink Brocade’: Green leaves with mottled pink spots
  • ‘Splash’ series: Leaves in mixes of greens with splotches of pinks, reds, or whites
PA169-4 ''''PINK SPLASH'''', POLKA-DOT PLANT, HYPOESTES PHYLLOSTACHYA. ACANTHACEAE. H
Pink Splash polka dot plant David Q. Cavagnaro / Getty Images

Pruning

Polka dot plants tend to get leggy. You’ll need a pair of clean, sharp scissors or pruning shears to keep the plant from developing long, lanky branches. To promote a bushier growth habit, cut or pinch back the top two leaves on each stem weekly. Actively trimming can help the plant to grow healthier and more vigorously. Although flowers sound nice, it's best to clip them when they start appearing to extend the growing season of your polka dot plant. The flowers aren't as ornamental as the leaves anyway. The plant will die off or enter dormancy once it has finished flowering.

Propagating Polka Dot Plants

Polka dot plants can be grown either from seeds or stem cuttings. If you are starting from seeds, sow them in the early spring. You can propagate from cuttings anytime; however, your success rate of growing a healthy plant will be best in the spring or summer. Trimming your polka dot plant is a good way to maintain a bushier, healthier plant. If you live in a non-tropical climate, your polka dot plants will die once the first frost comes. So, take your cuttings, multiple your plants, and make gifts of them or keep them indoors over winter. Also, if you notice your plant is dying outdoors, a stem cutting is a great way to try to revive your plant indoors. Let's examine how to propagate your polka dot plant from a stem cutting rooted in water or moist soil.

  1. To propagate the polka dot plant using stem cuttings, you will need a sterilized pair of scissors or shears. You will need a clean jar of water or a pot with a well-draining potting mix or peat moss. If rooting in soil, you will need clear plastic wrap. Optionally, you can use a rooting hormone.
  2. Cut a piece of stem from any part of the plant but make sure you have at least a 2-inch piece. A 4-inch piece is ideal.
  3. Polka dot plant roots easily. You can watch the cutting's roots grow in a clear jar with water. Rooting in soil is more of a gamble since you can't see if roots have developed, but the polka dot plant reliably likes to develop roots with or without rooting hormone.

Developing roots in water:

  1. If rooting in water, keep the water level even by adding water as it evaporates. Every other week, change out the water entirely to inhibit bacterial or algae growth.
  2. If rooting in a clear container, you should be able to see when the root reaches about 1 to 2 inches long. The root's growth rate is unpredictable. It can take two weeks or several months before the root grows about 2 inches long.

Developing roots in potting mix or peat moss:

  1. If rooting in the soil, make sure the potting mix or peat moss is evenly moist. Add water as needed to keep it evenly moist. Place the fresh-cut end of your cutting into evenly moist, well-draining potting mix or peat moss. Optionally, you can place some rooting hormone on the fresh-cut end before planting it about an inch deep in the soil to aid the rooting process.
  2. It can take about 2 weeks or longer for the cutting to develop roots. To test if the cutting has set roots, gently tug at the cutting to see if it has give or if roots keep the stem rooted in the soil.
  3. Cover the cutting with clear plastic wrap until the stem develops leaves or other obvious growth. It can take several weeks to several months.

The plant's cutting is ready to be potted in a larger container or planted in the garden once the cutting has established several inches of new growth. Only plant the cutting in the garden once the threat of frost is gone.

How to Grow Polka Dot Plant From Seed

Sow seeds on the surface of warm, moist soil. Place the plant in a sunny location. The seeds should sprout in a few days. Once the seedling has grown several inches—usually in a couple of weeks—it is ready to transplant into a larger container or plant outdoors. Only plant outdoors after the threat of frost is over.

Potting and Repotting Polka Dot Plant

It would be best to move plants into larger containers as they grow. If a plant outgrows its container, it becomes pot-bound or root-bound. Its roots have nowhere to grow. A sure sign your plant has outgrown its pot is when the roots start growing out of the drainage holes, and the plant stops growing. The best time to repot a polka dot plant is in the spring after its dormant period.

Gradually increase the plant's pot size. The new pot should not be more than two inches wider than the old pot and no more than 2 inches deeper. Too large a pot encourages the roots to focus on growing below the soil line, which is not good for the plant's upward growth.

Overwintering

Since this plant is a tropical plant, it will not survive frosty weather. Before the first frost, you can cut stems from the plant, root them indoors in a small potting container or jar of water. If kept outdoors in a container, bring these plants indoors to a partially sunny indoor spot. In the spring, you can replant it in the garden after the threat of frost is over.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Common pests that enjoy polka dot plants are mealybugs, aphids, spider mites, thrips, and blackfly. Typical diseases associated with polka dot plants are root rot, leaf-spot diseases, rust, southern blight, and powdery mildew. Telltale signs of these bug infestations or disease include foliage that's discolored, leaves that have holes or otherwise appear unhealthy, and small bugs moving on the plants.

How to Get Polka Dot Plant to Bloom

This plant flowers, but its small lilac or pink-colored racemes or flower stalks are insignificant and not known for their scent or appearance. Flowering normally occurs in late summer or early fall. Longer periods of light will keep the plant growing. As the light begins to diminish, it signals to the plant that the growing season is coming to a close, encouraging its flower growth. Shortly after blooming, the plant dies off or enters dormancy. In most cases, it's best to cut or clip off the flowers as they begin forming.

Common Problems With Polka Dot Plants

Polka dot plants are relatively easy to grow once you get their growing conditions right. Plants grown indoors under suboptimal conditions typically have more problems with pests, diseases, and establishing a good growing habit. Here are the most common problems and some potential solutions.

Curling Leaves or Leaves Loosing Their Color

Curling leaves and fading leaf color are typically caused by too much sun. Hypoestes phyllostachya needs bright, indirect light to maintain its color. But, it needs to be kept out of hot, direct sunlight. If it's in a container, move it to a shadier spot. If it's in-ground, think about giving it some cover.

Leaves Turning Brown or Drooping

Insufficient water and humidity can cause the polka dot plant's leaves to turn brown or start drooping. Also, too much sun can burn the leaves. Hard water and overfertilization are other reasons for a polka dot plant's leaves turning brown. Adjust your humidity or watering habits to see if you can revive the plant.

Leaves Turning Yellow or Dropping Off

Overwatering causes yellowing of the plant's leaves. Soggy soil causes the yellowing of the leaves and leaf drop. Overwatering 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 you're using potting soil with good drainage.

FAQ
  • Are polka dot plants easy to care for?

    Polka dot plants are easy to maintain and propagate. It can sometimes be difficult getting its growing conditions perfect, but once established, it's usually good to go.

  • How fast does polka dot plant grow?

    These plants have a moderate growth rate, although they tend to get picky with their growing conditions and tend to slow down their growth rate if they aren't perfect.

  • How long can polka dot plant live?

    Polka dot plants usually complete their life cycle within a year. But, you can prolong their life by propagating stem cuttings at the end of the growing season.