Montague man’s astounding lilies

  • A busy bee explores a double pink longiflorum (Easter lily) oriental hybrid in Bob Walker's Montague garden. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • A swallowtail lands on a daylily bred by Montague resident Bob Walker. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Bob Walker has cultivated dozens of lilies and daylilies at his Montague home, including this heart-shaped beauty. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • A bird's-eye view reveals asiatic lilies in full bloom in Bob Walker's Montague garden. Greenery indicates where the trumpets and orientals will come in as the season unfolds. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Bob Walker bred this speckled asiatic lily known as Tiger Babies. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Bob Walker and his assistant, Wendy Carroll, tend hundreds of lilies in Walker's Montague garden. Carroll holds 16-year-old Hamish. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Asiatic and oriental lilies grace Bob Walker's Montague garden. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

For the Recorder 
Published: 7/18/2022 2:51:28 PM
Modified: 7/18/2022 2:51:03 PM

Robert “Bob” Walker is a highly skilled scientist and devotee of beauty who’s carried out plant propagation projects and maintained a grove of lilies for decades on his Chestnut Hill Loop property in Montague.

Walker, 89, downplays the intricacies of lily breeding. “It’s Mickey Mouse stuff,” he insists, but that’s in comparison with his experience growing volumes of tuberculosis bacteria while working toward degrees in public health and microbiology.

Strolling through his garden, Walker gazes with satisfaction on thousands of lily buds. Those already in bloom are breathtaking, mirroring splashes of color inside Walker’s home, where he creates stunning quilts, “mostly during the winter, when things slow down in the garden.” Indoors and out, Walker’s place is a feast for the eyes, as well as the nose.

As a visitor nears Walker’s garden, fragrances entice the nose. Many lilies have strong fragrances, but Walker notes that plenty are fragrance-free.

Walker’s passion for lilies began in 1982 with a birthday gift. “A friend gave me two or three bulbs,” he said. “I got really interested.”

Walker taught microbiology and conducted research at UMass Amherst for 32 years, retiring in 1992. He also directed the UMass environmental science department. Before and since retirement, he’s immersed himself in an array of activities, and when Walker gets “really interested,” things happen in a big way, whether it’s ham radio operation, brewing beer, making quilts, or filling a 60 by 100 foot plot with lilies galore.

“My wife and I always had vegetable gardens, both in Montague and when I was in graduate school in Michigan,” said Walker. “When we lived outside of Lansing, we maintained about an acre.” Muriel “Boots” Walker, to whom Bob Walker was married for nearly 60 years, was also a scientist and artist.

“When I got interested in lilies, I decided to check into it,” said Walker. He joined the North American Lily Society and the New England Lily Society, for which he served as an officer. He also joined the Greenfield Garden Club, the New England Daylily Society, and the North American Daylily Society.

Never one to do anything halfway, Walker began breeding new varieties of both lilies and daylilies. He points out that “they’re distantly related, but really totally different,” although many people lump them into one category.

Lilies grow from bulbs; daylilies grow from roots or corms. To differentiate, examine the leaves: daylily leaves look like grass blades growing from a clump, while lily foliage grows the entire height of the central stem. True to their name, a daylily blossoms for just a day, whereas a lily blossom can last a week or two.

When Walker cultivated lily varieties, he was one of just three or four “amateurs” attempting the process in the U.S. “Now, it’s gone berserk,” he said. “Everyone’s doing it.” That may be an exaggeration, but Walker’s point is well taken: lily propagation has taken off.

“Asiatics crossed with trumpets, trumpets crossed with orientals, orientals crossed with asiatics…the varieties are endless,” said Walker, adding that Dutch growers are particularly adept, producing blooms for bouquets and bulbs for home and commercial gardeners. “But it’s everywhere now, not just the Dutch.”

For propagation at home, Walker converted a spare room into his lab. “I put in a hood to suck air out. It’s crucial to create a sterile environment, and I had to keep the inside of that hood really clean,” he said. “I used a big pressure cooker to sterilize my apparatus. I had to be very careful about contaminants.”

Fungi are a major threat to the propagation process. “One spore falling into a container can spread and ruin everything,” said Walker.

Growing up in Quincy, Walker gardened with his family, “when I was a little kid before the war, and during [WWII] when everyone had victory gardens.” Each Quincy home sat on a 50 by 100 foot plot; gardens were small, about 10 by 20 feet. “Everyone in town had the same deal.”

Walker’s maternal grandfather, Arthur P. Wyman, was president of the Boston Area Market Gardening Association. “Our family had a huge farm for generations in Arlington,” said Walker.

When Walker married Muriel Parent in 1959, the reception was held in Wyman’s garden. “My grandfather cultivated roses,” said Walker. “It was a beautiful place for a reception.” Walker, however, doesn’t do roses: “I don’t like the thorns.”

When asked about favorite lilies, Walker replied, “Well, it’s seasonal. Right now, it’s the asiatics, the shorter ones. After that, we get the trumpets. Later, the orientals come in.” There are 80 species worldwide, and countless varieties and subsets. Clearly, it’s hard to choose favorites.

Walker offered tips for success. “Growing early ones, like asiatics, is like falling off a log. They have less risk of insects or fungus. Put those in front, because they’re shorter than the others, about three to four feet tall.”

Varieties known as orientals bloom in late August and into September, “so they’ve been hanging around all summer,” said Walker. “That makes them more vulnerable to the biggest dangers: insects, rodents, and fungus.”

He recalls a lily crisis from about 20 years ago. “Red lily beetles slaughtered lilies throughout the U.S. People would go off on vacation and come back to find zero lilies, every plant decimated right down to the stem.” Researchers at the University of Rhode Island studied parasites and found one that attacks red lily beetles; their discovery helped bring the crisis under control.

Rodents, too, are problematic. “Chipmunks eat the buds, and voles prefer bulbs.” Walker lost everything one winter. “Vermin tunneled under the snow, and I lost over a thousand plants.”

This past year, Walker used a type of oil meant to repel rodents. “I also planted over a thousand alliums to discourage them. I even put in gadgets, things that beep to discourage pests. We’ll see.”

At nearly 90, Walker now depends on a trusted assistant, Wendell resident Wendy Carroll. “Wendy does the garden, she helps with the dog, does shopping and household stuff… so much.”

Carroll relishes both the work and her connection to Walker. “This job is like a dream come true,” she said. “I’ve been working with Bob for about four years, and it’s the best job I ever had. But it’s so much more than a job. Bob has become family to me.”

Walker and Carroll also team up to make homebrewed beer. “We start a new batch every other week,” said Carroll. “There’s lots of heavy lifting involving hot fluids.” Recently, they made Irish red ale and an IPA. “We also made a gluten-free variety out of rice,” Carroll added.

A nearby neighbor, Lise Coppinger, admires Walker’s activities and passions. “He often has me choose a lily to bring home,” she said. “His quilts are also gorgeous. Bob has an artist’s command of colors and patterns, and does beautiful work.”

Coppinger added that Walker “loves to engage in conversation, quietly and calmly. I imagine he was a very good professor!”

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an artist, gardener, musician, and mom.


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