Perfect weather played a role in the record-breaking turnout at the Audubon Society’s annual Peony Bloom Ice Cream Social at Gilsland Farm on June 19.

Hundreds of members, volunteers, supporters, and friends and family converged on the typically peaceful property, creating some traffic snarls and a long line for the free ice cream donated by Toots Ice Cream of North Yarmouth.

Competing with Toots for the most attention were hundreds of blooming peonies — a fixture at Gilsland Farm every June for nearly a century.

“As far as we know, there are varieties here that don’t bloom anywhere else,” said Michelle Anderson, marketing and communications manager.

David Moulton, an amateur horticulturist and founder of the Portland Water District, bought the land in 1911 and became totally fascinated by peonies. By 1928 he had collected more than 200 varieties planted over four acres — reputedly one of the most complete peony collections in the country. His plants were so famous that individual peony roots sold for as much as $250.

Moulton, who passed away in 1951, was also known to present every Portland High School graduate with a peony. 

In 1971, his heirs donated Gilsland Farm to the Audubon Society, which is now headquartered there.

Though Moulton’s fields of cultivated peonies no longer exist, visitors to Gilsland Farm find remnants of his collection blooming in the meadows and along the woodland edges every June. Next to the Education Center, a large formal garden of tidy rows of peonies shows off the beautiful blooms that most likely bloomed during Moulton’s day.

“I have watched this garden grow and be expanded year after year,” said Kathleen Sullivan of Portland. “It’s a real treasure. And what a wonderful gift that was that he started this whole thing.”

More than 1,600 households across the state have supported Audubon Society for 20 years longer. Those supporters who attend the Peony Bloom are presented with a fresh-cut flower.

“The event is geared around thanking our longtime, 20-year-plus members, donors and volunteers,” said membership coordinator Debbie Atwood. “And it has evolved into a kickoff to summer.”

“The peonies have such a limited bloom,” Anderson said. “They’ll be at their peak for less than a week — so timing this event is tricky.”

Timing how to serve free ice-cream to a line that wrapped around the gardens was also tricky, with some volunteers scooping so long they got blisters.

“We have five types of ice cream that will knock your socks off,” Atwood said.

A crowd favorite was On Top of Old Borestone, a snowy-looking coconut-and- Needham flavor named after the Audubon sanctuary in Elliotsville, the northernmost Audubon sanctuary in the state.

The inspiration for Woodchuck Berry ice cream was closer to home, as woodchucks could be seen on the property during the social. A labeled bucket thoughtfully covered a woodchuck hole right near the ice cream station.

Students from 317 Main Community Music Center of Yarmouth set a festive summer evening tone with live bluegrass music.

The family event also included free temporary tattoos of a peony or a sea gull, a paper peony craft table, and face-painting.

A small first-time auction of five heirloom peony plants — ready to transplant — brought in about $500 to support wildlife conservation in Maine through Audubon chapters and sanctuaries. “A modest amount,” Anderson said, “but it was lots of fun.”

The Audubon Society has seven chapters and eight sanctuaries throughout the state, including Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center (Scarborough), East Point Sanctuary (at the end of Biddeford Pool), Mast Landing Audubon Sanctuary (Freeport), and Hamilton Sanctuary (West Bath).

“This is the time of year when I’m all piping plovers, because they’re mating,” said Audubon Society wildlife ecologist Laura Zitske, who monitors beaches from Ogunquit to Georgetown to protect nesting areas and lead education programs. “I’m so busy this time of year, this is a chance for the family to come and for me to see co-workers and volunteers and people I’ve known through camps.”

Even during the social, it was possible to find a tranquil spot at Gilsland Farm, as did Portland resident Nancy Bowker.

“I come here at dawn and I’ve been recording myself singing,” Bowker said. “I just come out here with a little zoom recorder, and it records everything, even the birds.”

“I come out here and sit with my chair and read and sometimes take pictures,” said Joan Roux of Portland.

“Winter is especially nice out here — serene and shadowy, and if you go far enough you see the tracks of cross-country skiers,” said Edith McCormick, an Audubon Society member from Portland.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer who lives near Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]