Three Civil War-era plant remedies combat deadly antibiotic-resistant infections

Throughout history, doctors often prescribed effective plant remedies for their patients. Civil War doctors were particularly adept at using local plants to heal soldiers.

But once big pharma began to exert its power on mainstream medicine, many of these natural remedies were forgotten. Until now, that is.

In fact, a group of U.S. researchers recently found that three Civil War-era plant remedies have remarkable abilities to combat antibiotic-resistant superbugs. I’ll tell you all about these plants in a moment. But first, let’s take a step back…

Researchers look to history for solutions to superbug disaster

At the time of the Civil War, the “germ theory” of disease—which explains how microbes cause infections—was still in its infancy. Granted, Union doctors often used bromine and iodine (which have antiseptic properties) to treat wound infections. But they didn’t understand how or why they worked.

Not to mention, the Union embargo and blockade of southern ports kept drugs and other medical supplies from being brought into the South. So, the Confederate doctors didn’t have much access to the “modern” medicine of the  time.

Therefore, the Confederacy commissioned Francis Porcher, a botanist and surgeon from South Carolina, to compile a handbook of medicinal plants of the South, including folk remedies and traditional Native American and African herbalism.

Then, Confederate Surgeon General, Dr. Samuel Moore, drew on Porcher’s work to produce a guide of traditional plant remedies for field hospitals.

This work ultimately benefitted the South, given the horrendous state of medicine at the time. As Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes stated in an address to the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1860, “If the entire material medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes.”

Porcher’s remedies were used in thousands of cases during the Civil War, as documented in the compendium, “The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.” Military doctors compiled this compendium by reviewing historical archives stored at the U.S. Army Medical Museum. I directed the U.S. Army Medical Museum, then located at Walter Reed Medical Center, from 1986 to 1995, and we often reviewed the historical archives for research and educational purposes. (We renamed it the National Museum of Health and Medicine during my tenure.)

Traditional remedies work on modern problems

Scientists with Emory University in Atlanta and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, D.C., recently studied three plant extracts cited in Porcher’s handbook:

1.) Tulip poplar (L. tulipifera)—the largest hardwood tree native to the East coast of the United States.

2.) White oak (Quercus alba)—another large, deciduous tree native to the East coast.

3.) Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa)—a thorny, woody shrub native to the East coast.

These extracts have strong antiseptic properties, making them invaluable to the South during the 1860s.

For the new research, U.S. researchers wanted to know if the extracts could work against modern, hard-to-treat, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So, they tested the extracts against:

  • Aceinetobacter baumannii (better known as “Iraqibacter”)—which commonly afflicts wounded combat troops in Iraq.
  • Staphylococcus (Staph) aureus—considered the most dangerous of many common staph bacteria. It spreads from skin infections or medical devices (such as endoscopes). And it shows dramatic drug resistance to most front-line antibiotics.
  • Klebsiella—a common cause of hospital-acquired infections, which often results in fatal cases of blood infections and pneumonia.

In lab tests, researchers found:

  • Tulip poplar: Inhibited Staph aureus.
  • White oak: Inhibited Staph aureus, Aceinetobacter baumannii, and
  • Devil’s walking stick: Blocked staph toxins, essentially disarming the bacteria.

Plus, all three plants prevented Staph aureus from forming a “biofilm,” which acts like a shield against antibiotics.

Of course, one so-called “expert” said the research will only benefit modern medicine if we can identify which compounds are responsible for the antimicrobial activity.

But there it is again—that faulty mindset!

Flawed “active” ingredient mindset spawned superbug problem in the first place

Antibiotics have failed as a long-term solution to these superbugs because they only contain a single, “active” ingredient. And bacteria can become resistant to a single agent. Therefore, antibiotics actually created these superbugs!

On the other hand, plant extracts contain multiple, related compounds. And bacteria can’t develop resistance to all the multiple different compounds that work together synergistically.

So, as shown by this new research, we need to delve into traditional medicine for answers to our modern problems. We could start, for example, with a book of traditional Native American remedies compiled in the early 1700s by John Wesley, while he served as chaplain of the English colony in Savannah, Georgia. (He later returned to England to establish the Methodist Church.) Perhaps some of these remedies would also serve as an alternative to modern drugs…

In the end, we can’t wait for big pharma to patent yet another single, “active” ingredient drug. Because these dangerous infections demand action now.

P.S. I’m sharing an urgent announcement for conquering disease this Sunday, August 18th at 3 p.m. (Eastern time). Admission is completely free, so what are you waiting for? Click here to reserve your spot today! And hurry—spots are limited!


“Civil War plant medicines blast drug-resistant bacteria in lab tests.” Science Daily, 5/22/19. (