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Civil War Plant Remedies Stand The Test of Time

The Civil War was devastating to wounded soldiers. Medicine wasn’t up to the standard it is today, and conditions weren’t hygienic. Cramped hospitals, dirty surgical instruments, and more caused a quick spread of disease and infections. If a solider’s wound was to become infected, amputation was often their best hope, but secondary infections could take hold. 

To deal with the problem and lack of effective medicines, doctors tried something different. A botanist and surgeon from the Confederacy, Frances Porcher, wrote a book describing plants that could be found in the South. He collected the data from whoever knew anything about the remedies, like Native Americans and slaves. Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests was published in 1863 and listed around 30 different plants. When prepared properly, they could treat issues like gangrene.  

While over half a million soldiers died in the Civil War, a new study suggests plant remedies may have prevented more deaths. In Scientific Reports, a team tested three of the plants from Porcher’s book: white oak, tulip poplar, and devil’s walking stick. Researchers collected extracts from the leaves, inner bark, and other parts of the plant and watched what they did to three of the most common types of bacteria found in wound infections. 

The devil’s walking stick plant

The verdict? The plants didn’t outright kill the bacteria, but they did slow down their growth. The plants also messed up at least one type of bacteria’s ability to stick together, which is what makes them resistant to antibiotics. The team leader believes these plant extracts would probably be best for wound care, as opposed to an oral medication. The medical world is staring down a scary future where more and more drug-resistant strains of bacteria are appearing, old remedies like Porcher’s could be extremely useful. The next step is to identify what specific compounds in the plants are affecting bacteria.