Dandelions smile at us and we scowl back. They're cheerful, really, with sunny yellow blossoms and handsome, jagged leaves that give them their Latin name, dens leonis, for lion's tooth. When they go to seed, children delight in blowing their delicate parachutes while making wishes.
Yet the turf builder types among us -- and there are many, despite calls for restraint from environmentalists -- spew potent weed controllers from their broadcast spreaders to prevent dandelions from sprouting in their yards.
Even at the 18th-century Montpelier Mansion in Laurel, where historians are familiar with the dandelion's privileged past, the lawn around the grand house is clear of them.
Inside the carriage house, however, lies proof that the now-scorned flower once posed like a noblewoman for a formal portrait. Reproductions of botanical drawings of golden dandelions are found in an exhibition titled "Rub the Oils and Strew the Powders."
Along with dandelions, other plants once valued for their medicinal and culinary purposes are featured, with descriptions of their sometimes curious uses. One instruction stated, "rub your poultry with juice of rue, and weasels will not hurt them."
European Americans, enslaved blacks and Native Americans used hundreds of plants in traditional ways, although they could neither explain the science behind why some plants alleviated ailments nor discern what was fallacy.
The original illustrated botanical books from the show are stored in the Rare Book Collection in the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library. Because of their fragile nature, the books, called "herbals," were displayed for only one weekend last spring before being returned to their temperature- and humidity-controlled repository in Beltsville.
The prettiest drawings in the exhibition are the French illustrations of roses from 1835. Although mostly decorative nowadays, "roses were highly used in cooking and baking," said Mary Jurkiewicz, historian and facility manager at Montpelier.
Placed near the rose illustrations is a small copper still like the kind the women of Montpelier would have used to make rose water. The fragrant liquid, said Jurkiewicz, was added to baked goods.
The oldest illustration in the show depicts red hot peppers. It is from the 1542 book "History of Plants," by esteemed German botanist Leonhard Fuchs. A native American plant, the pepper was used to help relieve pain, improve digestion and stimulate appetite. As an ingredient in creams and ointments, it was meant to relieve joint pain.
Dandelions were used to help relieve constipation, calm nerves, and treat gout and jaundice.
As they are today, dandelion leaves were tossed in salads. The root was boiled for tea or roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute.
So, are dandelions cultivated in the mansion's flower garden along with roses and mint? No -- perhaps one of the gardeners feared the seeds would blow over the garden fence and grow into weeds in the lawn.
"Rub the Oils and Strew the Powders: The Legacy of European Herbs in Early American Medicine and Cuisine" continues through May 2007 in the carriage house of Montpelier Mansion, Route 197 and Muirkirk Road, Laurel. The exhibition is open during mansion tour hours -- March through November, Sundays through Thursdays from noon to 3 p.m. on the hour; and December through February, Sundays at 1 and 2 p.m. Admission to the exhibition is free. Mansion tours: adults, $3; seniors, $2; children 5-18, $1; 4 and younger, free. For more information, call 301-953-1376 or visit www.pgparks.com/places/eleganthistoric/montpelier_events.html.