A Better Set of Polka Dots

HYP Hippo Red (01)
‘Hippo Rose’ in the Pathway Garden with Begonia ‘Super Olympia Pink’

We considered Hypoestes to be a sleepy little category because pros in the industry need specific capabilities. That cute little houseplant your grandmother grew was a specialty player at best, and marginally used outside the house. Deep shade was its thing and spots was its shtick. It performed best in smoky little jazz cafes where the lack of light was the signature feature and no one understood the plant; however, we changed our attitude after we planted out the new Hippo series in our Display Gardens.

What we got was something different, something more like modern Coleus—larger plants, better branching, more dynamic color, and enough moxie to stand up to the other workhorses of the industry. We didn’t expect it, but Proven Winners released a genuinely useful series for both landscape and container work. You probably haven’t seen these plants yet unless you attended Field Day, because they just released this series last year. Let’s see if their efforts will change how you think about the Polka Dot plant.

HYP Hippo White (06)
You can’t spot any soil in the background of ‘Hippo White’


While the name Hippo plays off of Hypoestes, it also references a much larger habit. As the genus goes, this series is big. It reaches about 16–22 inches without becoming long and lanky. Rather, the plant sits up straight in its chair without slouching and sends up stems twisted with lots of signature leaves. To put it another way, Hippo has a sense of fluff—it fills the space above the ground.

One plant throws off a crowd of leaves so the habit does a good job of covering the nearby territory, spreading out about 8–14 inches from the center. Other Hypoestes grow out, but this one actually gets some height before it starts to unfold its unique umbrella of foliage. Hippo is actually the best variety for filling a space. If you have planted other Hypoestes in the past be sure to give this one more room to do its stuff.

HYP Hippo Rose (03)
Hippo Hypoestes can hang out with Begonias, New Guineas, Zinnias, and Coleus


A speckled leaf look is pretty rare and eye-catching en masse so it’s good news to hear about much better sun tolerance. Visitors to Field Day last year will remember this variety from the Tunnel of Love—that deep, dark garden between the office and the boxwood hedge. It’s our toughest proving ground where we send plants off to their…testing. Hippos have done well in that dark spot, but they perform even better in our semi-shaded areas.

In fact we discovered that if you want the best color, you’re going to need some sun. Like many colorful foliage plants, Hippo needs to be toasted with partial sun to get that rich color going. Pushing it into deep shade dials down the color and dials up the green, as the plant juggles its photosynthesis budget. All the funky colors and patterns will still be there, but they may not be as bright and vibrant.

HYP Hippo Red (11)
‘Hippo Red’ is a big plant that fills larger crockery


We had a hard time with this bit of news because of our experience with other Hypoestes, but Proven Winners swears by the performance of Hippos. They point to trial tests, personal gardens, University full-sun trials, photos, reports, and awards from Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia documenting—can we believe it?—Hippo full sun performance. All the evidence indicates no scorching, no leaf-curling, and no toes winding up under the house.

Maybe this is a mind-jail thing, where we are trapped by our own prior thinking. Perhaps we got caught by our old suspicions. Regardless, Proven Winners has thrown down with the challenge. Upon reflection, this kind of improvement is not unheard of—many of the modern Coleus cultivars do great in full sun. We plant them in hot gardens all the time. If you touch the Hippo plant you can feel a thicker leaf with a waxier coating than what you expect from a houseplant. This is what great breeding does, it changes the rules of the game—so, yes, maybe full sun performance in a Hypoestes could work. Maybe the Hippo series will be sunning themselves next to the Supertunias.

HYP Hippo White (01)
‘Hippo White’ mixes it up with Sedum and white Calibrachoa


This is an important pivot, because the Hippo solution is now more useful in more places. Instead of a specialty tool we only deploy for unusual situations, we have a design tool that delivers a distinctive look into many different garden and container scenarios. In mass plantings, we found that it works best when planted about 16 inches from center-to-center, tighter if you want a taller and more mounded look to the bed. Stems are pretty wiry and tough to pinch, so do not hesitate to put this plant into public gardens where people might actually sit on your work (by accident). You won’t see the stems because so many leaves spiral on them, but they will be firmly anchored into place.

In fact, if you are used to working with Wax Begonias, New Guineas, or Coleus you can work with the Hippo series. Hippos combine well with these standards because they are all light feeders, prefer the same soils, and handle the same variations in sun and water. If you can make those regular players work, you can make the Hippos work also.

Even better, the four Hippos—Red, Rose, Pink and White—grow to the same height with very similar habits. You can swap out one for the other, or mix them around in a pattern, and still get a consistent height and texture to your garden bed. It’s this attention to the seemingly small-but-crucial details that makes us think the breeders behind the Hippo series have the industry pro in mind.

HYP Hippo Rose (05)
‘Hippo Rose’ got really rosy in our Pathway Garden with strong midday sun


For container professionals, the Hippo series fills that middle area of a design. It bunches up with loosely held edges. You don’t get a trailing look, but it is not a crisp, formal edge either—casual with attitude is a good description. Hippo can handle the taller and more popular container companions, and it does well regardless of where the customer eventually puts the product. We would use this plant as an ingredient in our shade and part shade containers, but the full sun promise sounds exciting. If the series holds up in full sun, we could definitely see moving it out into the bright light containers.

HYP Hippo Red (14)
Personal photo from a Proven Winners employee (full-sun deck)


An important difference here is the Hypoestes flower. Seed varieties have a tendency to bloom in the short days of spring. This is important because the plant typically goes dormant afterwards—what we don’t want—so always snip off those blooms. However, the Hippo series is vegetatively produced and bathed with long-day light as the plants start out, so they almost never flower. No flower means no summer nap. In fact, Hippos bulked up for us and got more lush as the season progressed.

Because the genetics of the plant are rooted in Madagascar it naturally likes hot and humid days. This is good news for folks who want long-lasting color that looks good during our Ohio River summers. When you do fertilize the plant, apply a mixture with higher nitrogen than phosphorous.

Watch for the Hippo series when we release the crop this spring. We will be offering all four Hippo colors:

  • ‘Hippo Pink’ in 6-inch
  • ‘Hippo Red’ in 4.5-inch and 8-inch
  • ‘Hippo Rose’ in 4.5-inch and 8-inch
  • ‘Hippo White’ in 4.5-inch and 8-inch

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