On a steep Sierra hillside, Julia Moore planted her own magical oasis.
Popping out under the pines are bright bouquets of peonies - thousands of flowers in a riot of red, pink, white and coral.
"I call it flamboyant serenity," Moore said. "They're just spectacular visually."
Moore owns Dragonfly Peony Farm in the Sierra foothills town of Wilseyville, about 90 minutes from Sacramento. For a few late spring weekends each year, Moore opens the gates and welcomes visitors to traipse her trails, soak in the sights and smell her many flowers.
"At the peak of bloom, the scent is just heavenly," she said.
Peonies - those big, frilly, romantic flowers that put on a late spring show - are having a renaissance. More gardeners are incorporating them into their landscapes. New eye-catching varieties make them hard to resist.
And it's one flower that grows great in Sacramento, but not in Los Angeles.
"You need some winter chill to make them bloom," Moore said. "But if you can grow apples, you can grow peonies. They're super-easy."
At Dragonfly, visitors are welcome to walk row after row of the stately plants, pick out favorites and take some home.
Accompanied by her spaniel, Lilly, Moore planted every peony herself, starting with a small triangle near the road in 2002. More than a thousand plants now fill terraces that stretch over an acre on her hillside property, overlooking the middle fork of the Mokelumne River. Hundreds more are in large pots, awaiting buyers.
"My motto: Every year, a little better," she said.
A singer-turned-antiques dealer and transplanted Southern Californian, Moore found her woodsy nirvana almost by accident.
"I saw my first real peony at Capital Nursery on Freeport Boulevard," she said. "I had never seen one outside of Asian art. I got it and grew a floating garden on my houseboat on the Sacramento River."
She bought her forest property as a personal retreat, a place where she could get away from it all. She soon discovered that a large section of her woods had died and needed to be removed.
To get in large equipment for tree removal, a dirt road was constructed. After the dead pines were cut, the barren ground formed a flat terrace filled with sunlight.
"I thought, 'What can I plant here that the deer won't eat?' " Moore recalled.
She remembered peonies. Once established, they need little water or fertilizer, just some bone meal before bloom time. Although initially expensive ($32 and up at Dragonfly), one plant can last 30 to 100 years, growing more spectacular with every season. The tree varieties last centuries.
"They're practically bullet-proof," she noted. "Deer come through here all the time, but look the other way. Gophers won't touch them."
The peonies now spill over the hillside terrace. The hard, round buds look like glossy green golf balls atop sturdy 3-foot stems.
"You've got to watch your step while weeding," said handyman Harold Hallett, who built a bridge and other improvements at the hillside farm. "You can tumble off the side and roll down to the river.
"The farm is amazing," he added. "When she first started, I thought, 'There's no way she's going to sell these things. Who's going to come up here?' "
But come they do. The farm attracts visitors from throughout Northern California.
"People can spend hours here, just wandering around, taking photos - and they do," Moore said.
Sharon and Jerry Willis of Jackson paid a recent visit to pick up an unusual red peony.
"I've always wanted peonies," Sharon Willis said. "I really wanted to get a red one. I've lusted after that flower ever since I saw it."
To promote peonies, Moore takes her flowers elsewhere and also sells bare-root peonies via her website, www.dragonflypeonyfarm.com. Stems of her Coral Charm peonies won best in show three consecutive years at the Calaveras County Fair.
"Coral Charm is very popular; it's still my favorite," she said. "It's one of the first ones I ever got."
Now, she grows scores of varieties, from Abalone Pearl to Zu Zu. The names often reflect their Asian heritage.
"They have so much lore and legend behind them," Moore noted. "That's one of the things I like about them. At one time, only emperors could enjoy these flowers.
"I love the way they glow in the sunlight," she said of the silky petals. "This really is a beautiful, beautiful place. People tell me it's like a gem in the Sierras. I got very lucky."