Emory University suggested, in a recent study published in Nature, that traditional plant-based remedies used during the American Civil War to treat soldiers’ wounds could represent a source of modern-day antibiotics for some of the most dangerous multidrug-resistant bacteria. During the Civil War, and the Confederate Surgeon General commissioned a guide on medicinal plants that were native to the southern U.S. states, and which were used in traditional Native American medicine and the Emory University-led team tested extracts from three of the plants in the guide confirming their antiseptic properties. The book, titled “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, was published in 1863 and included 37 plant species that were used as antiseptics to treat gangrene and other infections.

“Our findings suggest that the use of these topical therapies may have saved some limbs, and maybe even lives, during the Civil War,” said ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, PhD. The extracts of the common plants were tested for growth inhibition of S. aureus, A. baumannii, K. pneumoniae, and P. aeruginosa, three common, often drug-resistant bacteria.

Extracts from L. tulipifera (Tulip Tree) and Q. alba (White Oak) were shown to be most active in inhibition of S. aureus growth and White Oak was most active against both A. baumannii  and K. pneumoniae. All plants also inhibited bacterial biofilm formation and it is thought that the biofilm is what protects the bacteria from drug induced death.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing global public health threat. Bacteria are very good at evolving very quickly, and so a rise in antibiotic resistance is “an inevitable response to antibiotic use,” the authors wrote. “Any single antibiotic, then, is not a permanent solution but another step in the struggle against infection.” Returning to native herbal formulations may be a wise choice.

Prior to the twentieth century, formal physician training was quite different, and herbal, natural treatments were taught. Onions, for example, were used to treat soldier’s powder burns. Now scientists know that onions and garlic contain antimicrobial agents that impact bacterial growth and biofilm formation. Studies are proving the efficacy of native therapies.