Polka dot plants include various shades of red, pink, rose, lavender, purple, and white.
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If I were an interior designer this column would be about something like soap dishes or door locks. They have roughly the same decorative significance as polka-dot plants for gardening: small but eye-catching.
However, for a rabid young teenage plant type in the 1950s, pink dotted plants were pretty spectacular. This was young Neil, blinded by everything off the beaten path. And when a plant came up speckled in pink, it was quite remarkable growing up in College Station, where maroon and white were the main distractions from basic green.
I got to know this plant in the Texas A&M floriculture greenhouses. At the time, the only color was that pink shape, but it was an interesting novelty. We learned that it is native to Madagascar, where strange plants of many species grow, and that it belongs to the Acanthaceae family of plants. I learned it under a different species name. It is now nicknamed Hypoestes phyllostachya. Rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it!
So, Polka Dot Plant and I are jumping ahead about 10 years. I took an intercollegiate flower grading team from Fort Collins, Colorado to the national competition at the University of Illinois. (Yes, there really is a competition for everything. I was actually on the Ohio state winning team when we won in Morgantown, West Virginia, a few years ago.)
Back to my story. The competition and ceremonies were over, we left the University of Illinois and drove back to Colorado. I decided to take my students through West Chicago to the Ball Seed Company, one of the largest seed wholesalers in the country for growers.
There in their test gardens I saw bed after bed with polka dot plants in different colors, which were tested as bedding plants. It was the first time I’d seen all the different shades of red, pink, pink, lavender, almost purple and white. And it was the first time that I saw spotted plants as bedding plants.
That was 50 years ago (no wonder my knees hurt) and the plant still plays a relatively minor role in the overall color scheme of the garden. Its season starts in warm weather so this column should really be running in a few months but I found a really nice greenhouse bench of theirs at a local nursery last week. They were offered for use in conservatory pots and other bright indoor gardens.
I figured this would be an easier time to put them into a story than in mid-spring when it gets really busy, so that was my motivation.
What you need to know to be successful …
Polka-dot plants need bright light, but don’t put them in direct sunlight from mid-spring through summer. During these months they need to be withdrawn in the light shadows.
Grow them in pots, either in small clusters of three plants in 10- or 12-inch pots, or in larger pots in combination with taller plants. Mature polka-dot plants grow to be 10 to 14 inches tall and wide.
They do best in well-drained, highly organic potting soil that can be kept moist. They are somewhat drought tolerant, but try to never let them wither to the limit or they will lose lower leaves and become long-legged.
Give a water-soluble, nitrogen-rich fertilizer in a dilute solution every few weeks during the growing season. Your goal will be that they grow vigorously and not let them die. If the plants get leggy, pinch or prune them back to induce new growth from below. If they still don’t look their best, it may be time to replace them.
You can find different selections of polka dot plants on the market, but the Splash Select® range from PanAmerican Seed® has been grown the most. To use their full registered names, they are Splash Select Pink, Splash Select Red, Splash Select Rose, and Splash Select White.
Knowing the close association between PanAmerican Seeds and Ball Seed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Splash Selects weren’t the great-great-grandchildren of these plantings that I saw in West Chicago a long time ago!