The Gardener's Apprentice

Proudly Polka-Dotted

Madagascar is an island nation off the south coast of Africa with unique climates and topography.  It is probably best known for vanilla beans and lemurs, with the lemurs taking the prize for visibility ever since their cinematic star turns in The Lion King and the Madagascar movies.

Polka dot plants or Hypoestes phyllostachya also hail from Madagascar, but they are nowhere near as celebrated as either vanilla or lemurs.  That said, you are unlikely to find a lemur at your local garden center or big box store.  Polka dot plants are another story.  Any retailer that stocks foliage plants, sells these colorful specimens, which feature green, teardrop-shaped leaves splashed with bright pink, red or white spots or blotches.  The red ones may also feature red leaf bases.  In my experience, pink splashing is most common.

A member of the Acanthaceae or acanthus family, polka dot plant is also known as “freckle face”, “flamingo plant”, baby’s tears” and “measles plant”.  Clearly “polka dot” is a better common name.  Sometimes neither the words “polka dot plant”  nor any of the common names will appear on plant tags.  Growers or wholesalers often substitute catchy varietal names like ‘Confetti’ and ‘Splash’ instead.  This does not help the educated consumer, but probably grabs the attention of casual plant buyers.

According to the handy tag attached to a recently purchased specimen, the plants were “first grown in English homes in 1840”.  This is logical, as 1840 was not long after England established a foothold in Madagascar.  The debut of polka dot plants also coincided with a period in horticultural history when Europeans were introduced to a large number of imported plants.  Victorian life may seem drab to twenty-first century observers, but they relished colorful plants.

These days, most of us see polka dot plants as easy-to-care-for foliage specimens or container arrangement fillers.  They have a nice mounding habit and the varieties for sale in most establishments rarely grow more than about four inches tall and four to six inches wide.  Given the opportunity, however, those color-splashed plants can take up considerably more real estate, growing up to one to two feet tall and up to one foot wide.  This probably happens most often outdoors in warm winter climates or indoors in large containers luxuriating in warm greenhouses.  The authorities at the Missouri Botanical Garden classify the plants as broad-leaf evergreens, but most indoor gardeners treat them as annuals.

Polka dot plants are easy to grow, requiring filtered sunlight, which means that you can save your sunniest indoor spaces for species that need even more light.  Give the polka dots rich soil, water when the soil surface dries out and feed with diluted liquid fertilizer according to package directions.  Pinch stems back from time to time to promote bushy growth.  If the ambient humidity is low, it is helpful to mist every few days to emulate the plants’ native climate.  Because their requirements are minimal, polka dot plants play well in container and dish gardens with other indoor stalwarts like begonias and kalanchoes.  They also make excellent terrarium specimens.

Most people have never seen polka dot plant blooms, but they are small, purple and appear atop flower spikes that hover over the leaves.  Some gardeners simply lop off the spikes, as they do with coleus and other plants grown primarily for colorful foliage.  Doing so eliminates visual distraction, if you are troubled by such things, but it does not harm the plant.

Sadly, the production of flowers may also signal the demise of the polka dot plant, as specimens tend to go dormant after the flowers fade.  Because life is short and polka dots are so ubiquitous and inexpensive, it is probably best to whisper a fond farewell to the spent plant and replace it with a healthy young one.

Is a polka dot plant as cute as its fellow Madagascar native, the ring-tailed lemur?  Probably not, but the plants are cheaper, easier to care for and will stay put in a container.  That is something to consider as you select the species that will take up residence in your home.