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David Senk -- Wizard of Wasps! (Interview)

The Wizard of Wasps and
Unusual Hybrids!
David & Alessandra Senk
All photos in this interview copyright © of David Senk

The Violet Voice is pleased to present an interview about that unique african violet hybrid called the Wasp.  Some people love them and others wonder what anyone sees in these strange plants.  Whatever the case, our interview with David Senk is certainly interesting and you are about to see some new wasps and other very unusual plants.

About David and His African Violet Hobby:
I am a 42 year old chemical engineer working in the electronics industry (or what remains of it!). I am a member of the Love for Wasps group on Yahoo, as well as the Yahoo African Violet hybridizing group and the Streptocarpus group. As far as other hobbies go, I am a private pilot, a hang-glider pilot and instructor, although I've taken a brief break from both the last few years because my weeks simply ran out of hours! I also enjoy studying foreign languages -- I speak Brazilian Portuguese, and I am learning Spanish and Mandarin.
My wife, Alessandra, and I have two children, Cian and Melissa, 12 and 10 years old respectively. My wife and two children are very supportive of my 'habit'. My 10-year old daughter has set up a small business to handle watering the collection -- as long as I keep my account current with her she keeps the plants fed !

I started growing violets in the mid 90s after my grandmother gave me a plant for my birthday. I had a fair talent for killing houseplants (usually slowly) up to that time and I was determined that this one was going to make it, so I went out and bought a couple of books at my local bookstore on African Violets to learn about caring for them. The books had photos of some of the hybrids available at that time and a list of sources...inside of a couple of months my available window sills were full.

Today I grow perhaps thirty or so named plants - ones that I use or plan to use in my hybridizing  projects - and I have about a thousand crosses at any given time that range from mature second and third generation plants that I am evaluating for possible registration and/or continued development, down to seedlings that have just been potted up to solo cups for the first time.

My 'day job' usually keeps me going until about 6:00pm, although that varies from day to day and week to week depending on what projects I have and on my travel schedule. During the week I have very little time for my plants, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes a day -- just time to check out who has bloomed for the first time, which seeds have started to grow and which crosses have taken. Most of my violet time comes on the weekends. I probably spend six to ten hours a week in total playing (can you really call it work?) with my violets.
Bitten by the Hybridzing Bug:

In my "ideal" life, I could devote myself full-time to hybridizing and have all of the shelf space I need and also an automated watering system! The real me is limited to about a dozen shelves, has to fit violets into the little bits of time that life permits, and still has an incredible amount to learn about growing and hybridizing these great little plants.

It's tough for me to call hybridizing hard work -- I really enjoy the process of it all too much for that. From picking the goal in the first place, to choosing the parent plants, to getting the seed pod to set, all the way through the first bloom, it's a very rewarding and satisfying experience. When it starts being work, I'll probably have to stop doing it.

I would have to say that persistence and patience are two traits that apply in both my professional work and my hybridizing. I love a good problem and a good challenge. I really enjoy the opportunity to set up a good experiment, analytically observe what happens when it is run, and come up with a creative solution.

Big Bells 
Falling in Love with Wasps:I fell in love with wasps the first time I saw one -- they have such an elegant and delicate flower shape. I'm working on several different wasps right now -- a yellow wasp, a red wasp, an improved green-edged white wasp, and a fantasy wasp. The yellow has been the toughest so far, but I'm hopeful that the batch of seedlings that I'm growing out right now might have the first one or two hopefuls.

My ideal wasp right now would be a bright solid yellow blossom held high above very dark green, red-backed foliage and maybe throw in some pink or blue fantasy specks just for fun. I'd guess that this is still three or four crosses off in the future from where I'm at right now.
Wasps and bustled foliage seem to be linked very tightly genetically. I have yet to see a plant with bustled foliage that did not have a wasp flower, although I do have several plants that have wasp flowers with non-bustled or minimally-bustled foliage. Bustled foliage is very interesting and pretty to look at, but usually does not form a well-behaved rosette. Most of my hybridizing with wasps right now is with the non-bustled foliage in the hopes of getting a plant that has both wasp flowers and well-behaved foliage. I don't personally show African Violets, but it would be nice to have some wasp varieties that behave well enough to be shown should someone want to.
There are a couple of my new wasp varieties that I would like to register with AVSA in the near future -- one is the green-edged white wasp (pictured on the background of this article), and the other is a girl-foliage wasp that forms a nice rosette and holds the blossoms up nice and high. There are a few others that I'm still growing out before deciding.

Hybridizing Goals:
I'm a big fan of exotic looking violets. I'm presently working on heavily lobed girl foliage. Solid yellow flowers are up there at the  top of the list, and a solid yellow wasp is at the very top. As far as non-wasps go, I'm working on yellows, bell-shaped blossoms, longifolia and 'Project X' -- sorry, can't say any more about it than that right now!
Alchemy Gold
The mechanics of hybridizing are really pretty simple. Get some pollen to the right place at the right time, and there you have it. I think that what is most important is to have a specific goal in mind when you start, and to be willing and able to throw out lots and lots of plants that don't meet that goal. Limited shelf space is great at forcing that discipline on you. That being said, if something really special comes along that was not part of the original goal, don't miss it!

MOST of my crosses are goal oriented -- that is, one parent has one trait, the other parent has another and hopefully a couple of the seedlings or the F2s will have both traits. Some of my crosses, though, are intentionally done as pure curiosities. I like to take two very different plants and cross them just to see what will come up. Some of my favorite plants have come from these 'what if' crosses.
Except in cases where I'm growing specifically for foliage (longifolia in my case) I do grow almost all of my plants out from seed to full bloom. It usually takes four to six months from pollination to viable seed, and then another three to six months to first bloom.

Most of my plants are either semi-minis or minis, so I don't ever throw one out just for being small. If I have a plant that is not growing well or appears to be stunted, I'll usually repot it or put down a leaf just to see if it is the plant itself or how I was growing it that was the problem.
I'm amazed at how often violets will mutate or sport, and at how much material there is out there to work with. I love setting a hybridizing goal, picking the 'parents', and growing out the crosses to get to there, but one of the very best parts of hybridizing are the unexpected 'gems' that pop up from time-to-time that had absolutely nothing to do with the original goal.

I've had a few unexpected and interesting results along the way -- the most recent, and one I'm still growing out to see where it goes, is a girl-leaf violet that branches. Some of the leaves have branched as many as five times already. Each successive branch grows a couple more leaves that in turn, branch themselves. It may be a dead-end genetically, though, since it has yet to flower. I've put down a few leaves to see if I can force a flower using a bloom-booster fertilizer.
When hybridizing wasps, you never know what you will get. Wasps come in LOTS of different shapes -- some have petals that look like long, skinny tubes with flared ends ('horned' wasps), some have the typical wasp petals, but they refuse to open up completely (quite frustrating when you can see that the inside is just what you were shooting for!), and others can't decide whether to be wasps or just plain old pansies. And just like the yellows, it seems that my favorite ones are always the ones that are most difficult to use in crosses. The other difficult thing with wasps is that the foliage is often bustled which means that it will not form a nice even rosette.

David's Hybridizing Methods:
I do not remove the anthers of a seed parent when I'm pollinating unless there is a pest problem, self-pollinations are very rare with African Violets. I use a petal from a flower to apply the pollen. I hold the petal in a pair a surgical clamps so that it doesn't fall. It is a very effective method of picking up even small amounts of pollen and getting them to the stigma without doing any damage to it. I usually pollinate as many blossoms on the same plant as possible. Some plants are very easy to get to set, others are surprisingly difficult. The more you pollinate the better your odds. Also, the more pods that set on a plant, the better they all seem to do in my experience.
Blossoms With Veining
I leave the pods on the plant until they are dry and hard. If pods dry in less than four months, odds are that the seed will not be viable. I'll still plant whatever comes out of the pod if it dries in less than four months, though, as I've had a few pods produce viable seed in as little as three months there's no harm in trying. Some seed pods will have hundreds of seeds -- they just keep pouring out -- and others will have none at all. I've had several crosses where only one single seedling sprouted out of three or four seedpods.
If I have a plant that looks promising and it is an intermediate, I will often pollinate the first bloom the plant ever had. You can always throw it out later if you change your mind, but when you're looking at upwards of a year per generation, any time savings you can find have to be taken advantage of. I keep about one in twenty five plants as intermediates (plants that aren't final products, but that do have some or most of the traits that I'm looking for), and something around one in fifty to one in a hundred are keepers. LOTS of crosses are complete duds -- no keepers in the entire lot.
Right now, I'm working on a batch of new wasps that are intermediates. Most of them are some type of fantasy wasp. For some reason I haven't gotten one yet with a really pretty flower AND nice foliage, just one or the other. The next generation, which I'm now growing out should have some potential keepers. Same story with the reds and yellows -- lots of hopeful seedlings to evaluate this summer.
Growing Methods and Pests:
As far as growing methods go, I'm still trying new things to find what works better than my current set-up, but the system right now is a pretty basic potting mix (1 part each peat moss, perlite and vermiculite, a little superphosphate, some dolomite lime to raise the pH).
I bottom water every two to three days and grow under flourescent lights. I have one room with a humidifier that stays at about 50% R.H., but the rest of my plants have to tolerate whatever the rest of us in the house do -- usually something in the range of 25-35% R.H. The temperature varies quite a bit in Southern California from Winter to Summer. In the winter the temperature ranges from about 60F at night up to about 75F during the day, but in the summer we're lucky to fall to 70F at night, and often hit 90F during the day on the light stands. The plants get quite a stress test.
When it comes to pests, thrips have been my only real problem, and they are more of a recurring nuisance than a disaster. I can eradicate them for periods of time, but the little critters always seem to find a way in, and then the whole process starts again. Knock on wood, no mites yet or soil mealies or anything like that. My cat has done more damage than any other pest, now that I come to think of it...
A Few Favorites and Some Advice:
Of the wasps that I've seen or grown, Celery has to be near the top of my list of favorites -- it is such an unusual plant. The foliage is wild and unpredictable, and the wasps, when they decide to bless you with their presence, are great examples of what a wasp flower should look like.

I have a few older violets that I plan on keeping for as long as I'm growing – Celery, of course, is at the top of the list, then a couple of non-wasps -- Nancy Leigh and Elizabethan Ruffle (a great longifolia plant). I think that everyone should make an effort to grow one of the heirloom violets in order to help preserve some of the great older hybrids. I'd also highly recommend that everybody have one of their very own hybrids in their collection -- a plant that they know is unique in the world and their own creation. Beyond that, there are so many great violets out there it's hard to make a single recommendation. I don't really have a favorite hybridizer -- there are a lot of really great hybridizers out there and I probably have one or two favorite plants from most of them.  

For those beginning with violets, first and foremost, beware of the potential for a violet invasion! It's amazing how quickly one plant becomes ten and ten become a hundred. You don't HAVE to propagate every leaf that you remove! Beyond that, just have fun, try new things, don't be afraid of doing the wrong thing (they'll take a beating and still forgive you!). And by all means, pick some parents and try crossing them -- growing African Violets from seeds that you have crossed is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in the hobby.
David, we would like to thank you for taking the time to tell us about your unique hybrids. We look forward to hearing more in the future. -- The Violet Voice

Original Page Design and Interview Editing by Alana Feb/2005

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