Visitors to Gilsland Farm in June will find hundreds of peonies growing “wild” in the fields and woods of the sanctuary as well as in five neat beds near the environmental center.
The peonies are descendents of those planted by David Moulton, a Portland lawyer and dedicated conservationist who in 1911 bought the property as a summer retreat and named it Gilsland Farm. A well-known peony grower and member of the American Peony Society, Moulton planted more than seven acres of peonies at Gilsland Farm and cultivated for sale more than 400 varieties.
Moulton’s blooms became famous throughout New England, and visitors would hang over the railing on old Route 1 to admire them. Older neighbors recall he received as much as $250—an astounding price, at the time — for a single peony root. From the 1920s through the 1940s, Moulton made a gift of peonies an integral part of Portland High School’s annual graduation ceremony, with red blossoms from the farm complementing the gowns of graduates.
Gilsland Farm’s peonies stem from China, where once only royalty was deemed worthy of them. Native to the central regions of Siberia and central to Eastern Asia, the flower—Paeonia lactiflora—was introduced to Europe in the mid-18th century.
Most of the hybrids Moulton grew came from the Riviere` nursery in Creft, which is still operating. The majority of the flowers are double blooms, which the French preferred. They are among the latest blooming of peony varieties in Maine, which bloom spring through early summer.
Near the environmental center and headquarters building are five rows of peonies Maine Audubon staff and volunteers transplanted from the remains of a Moulton garden in the late 1980s.
Fields of cultivated peonies no longer exist at Gilsland Farm, but descendents from their root stock still bloom every year in formal and informal settings. Dozens bloom in the wild, sprinkling the woods and meadows that have grown up around them with blossoms of creamy white, lemon yellow, peppermint-swirl pinks and burgundy reds. Some of the “wild” peonies are older than the trees around them, having survived for more than 50 and 60 years.