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 January 23, 2002 [posted]
 Herbs: Clarification for Medical Subject Headings - Annotated Alphabetic List 2002

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he Medical Subject Heading (MeSH®) Herbs was eliminated for the year 2002, on the basis of its vagueness in discourse. Herb is a comfortable colloquial term which, unfortunately, has idiomatic complexities of connotation, multiple meanings and at the same time, limited scope.

The multiple meanings of herb are botanical (seed-bearing plant that does not form hard woody tissue) and idiomatic (plant with medicinal or culinary uses). These two meanings are in conflict because small woody perennial plants would be excluded by the first definition and non-useful plants are excluded by the second definition. Additionally, for the second meaning, medicinal or culinary uses add additional idiomatic connotations and are not mutually exclusive (many are both medicinal and culinary). In MeSH, the botanical meaning is not needed, as the taxonomies of plants serve that purpose well. The idiomatic meaning is well represented by Plants, Medicinal and by Plants, Edible.

Subsequent to the printing of the Annotated Alphabetic MeSH, we changed our plan for citation maintenance. The dual meaning provided a final dilemma of whether to treat it botanically, and maintain citations to Angiosperms or to treat it idiomatically and maintain to Phytotherapy. Because the idiomatic definition has a culinary use that precluded maintenance to phytotherapy, the decision tipped in favor of the scientific (botanical) meaning.

Because of the difference in meanings, different choices were made for the maintenance of records containing the MeSH Heading "Herbs" in MEDLINE and in LocatorPlus. "Herbs" in MEDLINE was changed to "Angiosperms." In both MEDLINE and LocatorPlus, all citations with a heading from the Angiosperms [B06.388.100] tree which had the subheading "therapeutic use" had the new MeSH heading "Phytotherapy" applied to them. In LocatorPlus, the use of "Herbs" had been predominantly for the medicinal uses, and the Heading "Plants, Medicinal" was applied instead of "Angiosperms" with one exception: the Heading "Herbs" with the qualifier of "history" was replaced by "Phytotherapy" qualified by "history".

For more details, please see the following NLM Technical Bulletin articles:

You may wish to make a notation in the Medical Subject Headings Annotated Alphabetic List 2002 (see page I-87) to correspond to this post-printing revision.

Angiosperms (in MEDLINE)
Plants, Medicinal (in LocatorPlus with the exception noted above)

Note that the What's New feature on the MeSH homepage should be regularly consulted for Update Info.

By Soaring Bear
MeSH Section
Lou Knecht
Bibliographic Services Division
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Bear S, Knecht L. Herbs: Clarification for Medical Subject Headings - Annotated Alphabetic List 2002. NLM Tech Bull. 2002 Jan-Feb;(324):e3.


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