Consider this: Approximately 92% of the top-prescribed medicines come from plants or fungi.1 A huge amount of medications are plant-based and there are numerous medicinal plants whose benefits we haven’t even studied yet.
Learning about medicinal plants can decrease your dependency on the pharmaceutical industry, improve self-reliance, and possibly save your life in situations where traditional medicines aren’t available.
There are too many medicinal plants to talk about them all here. If you are interested in learning natural medicine, Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs book is a great place to begin.
In this post, I want to focus on a specific subset of medicinal plants: natural antibacterial plants. These are the plants which can be used as a “natural Neosporin” for treating wounds and preventing infection.
An infection might not seem like a big deal but it can lead to deadly sepsis.
When Small Wounds Become Deadly
Before we get into the top natural antibacterial plants, it is important to understand why antibacterial salves are so important – especially in backcountry or survival situations.
When you get wounded, the body reacts by releasing white blood cells to the area. They cause the wounded area to become inflamed and form blood clots with platelets so the wound is sealed off from the rest of the body.
Small wounds usually tend to heal on their own. However, this largely depends on whether you are able to keep the wound clean. If it gets dirty, infection inevitably occurs (as you’ve probably seen when a wound starts to ooze puss).
If the infection isn’t treated quickly, the body can’t contain it. The inflamed blood vessels leak, releasing infection-fighting chemicals into the blood.
The result is sepsis, an inflammatory condition in which the body essentially attacks itself.
Dangers of Sepsis
The inflammation that occurs during sepsis prevents blood from flowing throughout the body. The blood pressure drop can become so drastic that it prevents nutrients from getting to organs. Without prompt intervention, organ failure can occur.
Septic shock occurs quickly and can be fatal. This is why it is so important to treat wounds – even small wounds – with antiseptic ointments and keep them clean.
Symptoms of Sepsis
- High body temperature
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme pain
- Pale skin
Risk of Sepsis
In unsanitary conditions – such as in the backcountry or after a natural disaster like flooding – wounds are easily exposed to many harmful pathogens.
After virtually every natural disaster, we inevitably see an increase in skin infections and sepsis. After the 2017 flooding of Houston, for example, there was a surge in skin infections. Some of these developed into life-threatening sepsis.
Luckily, no one died from sepsis in the aftermath of the Houston flooding. Most cases of skin infections were easily treated with antibiotics at the hospital.
We might not always have access to antibiotics or medicines in the aftermath of a disaster though, which is why it is so important to know how to treat wounds and make your own natural remedies from plants.2, 3, 4, 5
How to Treat Wounds
In a disaster situation, you could improvise dressing or quickly make an antibiotic salve – but it is better to be prepared than have to start gathering wild medicinal plants while your loved one is bleeding!
You can read more details about how to treat wounds when medical help isn’t available in this post. Here are the basic steps:
- Clean Hands – It is imperative that you are wearing nitrate gloves or have thoroughly cleaned your hands. You don’t want bacteria from your hands getting into the wound.
- Control Bleeding – Apply pressure to the wound until blood flow stops. Only once bleeding has stopped should you proceed. It helps to know the difference between venous and arterial bleeding for this step.
- Clean the Wound – You’ll need tools like tweezers, q-tips, sterile cotton balls, and a syringe with sterile water to clean the wound. In backcountry situations where these aren’t available, pour significant amounts of sterile (boiled) water over the wound to clean it.
- Apply antibiotic ointment – Now is time to utilize those natural antiseptic plants. The ointment also prevents gauze from sticking to the wound. This is important or otherwise you’ll rip off all the newly-formed skin cells each time you change the gauze.
- Cover with gauze/sterile dressing –For treating burns, you can use cling wrap instead of gauze.
- Change dressings regularly – Dressings need to be changed approximately twice per day. When changing the dressing, monitor the wound for any signs of infection.
Using Medicinal Plants
Contrary to what you might have seen in movies, you can’t just grab some leaves off of a plant and rub them onto a wound.
Sure, some of the medicinal properties of the plant might get into your body – but probably not in any significant concentration. Plus, you’ll probably just get the wound dirty.
To use medicinal plants for treating wounds naturally, you’ll have to use one of these methods:
- Essential oils
Making Salves from Medicinal Plants
The most effective (and easiest) way of using medicinal plants is to make a salve.
This is a two-step process which first involves infusing the plants into an oil. The oil is then mixed with other ingredients to make a salve.
Salves are great for natural wound care because they cover the wound with a protective layer. The layer keeps the wound moist (and helps reduce scarring) and prevents bacteria from entering all while healing it.
- 1 1/4 cup coconut oil: Other unrefined oils can be used, such as extra virgin olive oil. Coconut oil is particularly good choice though because it is proven to help heal wounds naturally. It is antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobial.6
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup dried medicinal plants: If using fresh plants, you’ll need ¾ to 2 cups. Fresh plants can only be used for certain extraction methods though.
- 2-4 tablespoons of beeswax: This helps make a thick, spreadable salve. Beeswax is also anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial.7 If you don’t have beeswax, you can use petroleum jelly or other types of natural waxes (such as soy wax).
- 1 tablespoon honey: Honey is well known for healing wounds naturally, particularly burns. It is able to release hydrogen peroxide which kills bacteria.8
Step 1: Oil Infusing the Medicinal Plants
The properties of medicinal plants will dissolve in oil. Thus, the first step to making a natural salve is to infuse the plants in oil.
There are three different ways of infusing medicinal plants. The method largely depends on how much time you have.
- Cold Infusion Method: Cover dried plants with oil in a jar. Stir to make sure all of the plants are covered with oil. Cover and allow the plants to steep for at least 4 weeks. It is important that you only use dried medicinal plants for cold infusions. Fresh plants will start to go rancid.
- Hot Oil Extraction Method: Put the dried plants and oil in a jar. Seal the jar and put in a crock pot with a few inches of water on the lowest setting. Let the jar heat for 4-8 hours. Be sure to keep watch so the water doesn’t evaporate.
- Oven Extraction Method: Put your dried herbs in a non-aluminum oven-safe dish. Cover with coconut oil. Bake at a very low temperature (no more than 200 degrees F) for 3 hours. Remove from the oven and let it sit for another 3 hours.
- Fast Extraction Method: Put dried or fresh plants and oil in a jar. Seal the jar and put in a double boiler. Keeping it over a low heat, let the jar heat for approximately 1 hour. Make sure that the oil doesn’t get too hot or it will destroy the medicinal properties of the plant.
Step 2: Strain Infusion
Strain the infusion through cheesecloth, capturing the oil in a clean jar. You can also use nylon stockings or lace curtains if you don’t have cheesecloth. Be sure to squeeze out as much of the plant extract as you can.
Step 3: Make the Salve
On a very low heat (or use a double boiler), melt your infused oil, beeswax, and honey. Stir the ingredients together. When you remove the salve from the heat, it will harden.
It might take a bit of trial and error to get the consistency of the salve right. Try adding just a bit of beeswax for starters. Then remove a bit of the mixture and put it in the freezer for a minute. If it is too soft, then add more beeswax.
You will need:
- Other alcohol of at least 80 proof
- 190-proof natural cane spirits
- Propylene glycol
- Vegetable glycerin
*As a general rule, the ratio of fresh herbs to solvent is 1:2. If using dried herb, the ratio of herbs to solvent is 1:4.
Step 1: Put medicinal plants in a jar
If using fresh plants, it is best to chop them up in a blender first.
Step 2: Add solvent
Add the solvent of your choice to the jar. Seal the jar and give it a good shake.
Step 3: Let steep
Ideally, you should steep your tincture for at least 1 week in a cool, dark, dry place. Depending on the herbal plant being used, some recommend steeping for 6+ weeks. During the first week of steeping, occasionally give the jar a little shake.
If you are pressed for time, you can steep the tincture for as little as 3 minutes. However, you won’t get a very potent tincture in this short of a time.
Step 4: Strain tincture
Strain the alcohol-herb mixture through cheesecloth. Catch the liquid in a clean jar. This is your tincture.
You can watch a video of the process below:
Resins from Medicinal Plants
Resins don’t get nearly as much attention as oils and tinctures in natural medicine. However, they can also be very effective in wound care – especially for large wounds which need to be sealed off.
Considering that resin is a trees natural way of protecting itself from infection, it is no surprise that tree resins contain numerous natural antibacterial and antifungal compounds.
Traditionally, the resin from pine, spruce, and other coniferous trees were mixed with butter or animal fat to make a salve.14
You can also make thick resins from plants too.
Step 1: Blend medicinal plants
You only want to blend the plants for a few seconds.
Step 2: Cook on low heat
Put the blended leaves into a big pot. Add just enough water to cover the plant. Heat on a very low temperature. Don’t let the mixture boil or it will destroy the antibacterial properties of the plants.
Cook for approximately 30 minutes, making sure to stir frequently. The water will turn a dark brown or green color.
Step 3: Strain plants
Strain the cooked plant mixture through cheesecloth. Collect the liquid.
Step 4: Evaporate the plant liquid
Put the collected liquid in a clean pot. Once again, heat on a very low temperature. You’ll need to stir frequently to make sure the liquid doesn’t burn to the bottom of the pot. The water will evaporate and leave behind a sticky, thick resin.
Recommended reading: Natures Natural Pain Killer – Wild Lettuce
Homemade Essential Oils
You can find a lot of instructions for DIY essential oils online. However, most of these instructions are actually for making infused oils (which is what we talked about in the section about making salves).
Infused oils are made by soaking medicinal plants in oil. By contrast, essential oils need to be steam distilled. The process involves simmering the plants, collecting the steam, and separating the oil out of the steam.
Essential oils are usually much more potent than infused oils. However, they are also very difficult to make at home – which is why I won’t include instructions here. If you are interested in making your own essential oils, you can find instructions here.
For those who don’t want to forage and harvest their own medicinal plants, buying essential oils is a good option. You will also be able to find essential oils of exotic medicinal plants. Tea tree oil and eucalyptus, for example, are good additions to every natural first aid kit.
Top Antibacterial Medicinal Plants
Because there are so many medicinal plants which have natural antibacterial properties, here we will focus on the natural antibacterial plants which are:
- Found in North America
- Effective for natural wound healing
- Backed by scientific evidence
Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis)
Goldenseal is a well-known natural antibacterial. The main active compound is berberine. It has been tested against antibiotics like penicillin and been found to be a suitable natural alternative. Goldenseal also has numerous other benefits such as fighting diabetes and tumors.
The plant is usually sold as an oral formation, but you can also use it topically to treat wounds, pink eye, canker sores, and vaginal infections. Please note that Goldenseal has endangered status – you aren’t supposed to pick it on public lands without a permit!
Maybe consider planting some in your medicinal garden.
- Where Found: Northeastern USA.
- How to Use for Wound Treatment: The most potent part of the plant is the roots. Cut these up, dry, and use for making tinctures or oil infusions. 16, 17, 18, 19
Alder (Betulaceae Alnus)
Alder is a nut-bearing shrub. Its bark contains the natural anti-inflammatory agent salicin. It was commonly used by the Native Americans for treating poison oak, poison ivy, and other itchy skin conditions.
The tannins in alder are potent natural antibacterial agents. The plant is also rich in antioxidant phenols and flavonoids. It is great not just for treating wounds, but also as a natural pain reliever.
- Where Found: Widely found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia
- How to Use: Collect the twigs, bark, or leaves of the alder plant. These can be steeped into an oil infusion, cooked into a resin, or made into a tincture.20, 21
Coniferous Tree Sap (Spruce, Pine, Fir, etc.)
Coniferous trees release a sticky sap when their bark is damaged. The sap contains various natural acids and lignans which protect the tree from infection. These very same compounds can also protect humans from infections.
Resins have long been used for treating wounds naturally. They have also been highly studied and found to be very effective with a very low incidence of allergic reaction.
- Where Found: Northern hemisphere and mountainous regions of the south
- How to Collect Tree Resin: You’ll need to make a V-shaped notch on the tree trunk. You’ll put a collection device below the point of the V to catch the sap. Read more about how to tap trees here.
- How to Use for Wound Treatment: Traditionally, the tree resin is heated and mixed with unsalted butter to make a salve. You can also mix it with another type of oil, such as olive oil or coconut oil. You shouldn’t apply resin directly to a wound though because it is too sticky and will make changing bandages very difficult. 22, 23, 24
Wild Comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum)
The type of comfrey native to North America is known as “wild comfrey.” It’s easy to confuse wild comfrey with its cousin Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) especially since they are both great medicinal plants for healing wounds.
Wild comfrey is an antioxidant, natural pain reliever, and anti-inflammatory. Be careful not to confuse it with foxglove, as that plant could result in poisoning.
- Where Found: Mostly around Kentucky; can also be found in some deciduous forests
- How to Use for Wound Treatment: Harvest the roots and leaves to make a tincture or infused oil. When in a hurry, you can simply grind up leaves to make a poultice to apply to wounds. 25, 26, 27
Better known as marigold, this genus of plants includes many species, all of which are medicinal plants. It has been highly studied against various types of bacteria. Other studies have shown it effective against fungal infections as well.
One study that looked specifically at wound healing. It found that calendula is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, helps form new blood vessels, and aids in the process of forming fibrous tissues.
- Where Found: Calendula is native to Europe and Eurasia, but it is commonly cultivated in gardens in North America.
- How to Use for Wound Treatment: The petals contain the most active ingredients. Studies have found much better results with the petals than other parts of the plant.28, 29, 30
Plantain (Plantago major)
Plantain is an edible plant that can probably be found in your backyard right now.
In addition to being nutritious (even if not very tasty), it contains the active compounds aucubin and allatonin. These compounds are responsible for plantain’s antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Plantain is also good for ulcers, indigestion, heartburn, insect bites, diarrhea, and colds.
- Where Found: Plantain can be found all throughout the world, including in cities. It is often considered a weed.
- How to Use for Treating Wounds: Collect just the leaves of the plants to make tinctures or salves. Choose older leaves for medicinal purposes. The younger leaves have fewer medicinal compounds but are more tender and better for eating.31
Wild Garlic (Allium)
For centuries, wild garlic has been used as a natural remedy for infections. Many (including my grandmother) will recommend swallowing entire cloves of garlic to fight off colds and flus.
The scientific literature supports garlic’s role as a natural antibacterial medicinal plant. When a garlic bulb is cut, it releases a potent antimicrobial called allicin for preventing infections. Allicin is why garlic only starts to smell after you cut it.
- Where Found: Wild garlic is mostly found in the eastern part of the United States. The garlic you buy in the store also has medicinal properties.
- How to Use for Treating Wounds: It is best to make an infused oil salve or tincture out of garlic. However, you can also use fresh garlic for treating wounds. Grate up garlic and mix it with water to make a paste. Apply this paste to a sterile bandage. Apply a new paste each time you change the bandage. 32
Lavender is best known for its scent, but it is also a natural antibacterial. One study tested it against 31 strains of bacteria, yeasts, and molds and found it to be potent. The compounds linalool and ramarinic acid in lavender are likely responsible for the antibacterial benefits.
Another benefit of lavender is that it is easy to find throughout almost all of the United States. Lavender is a very hearty bush and you can easily grow it in your garden – and enjoy its fragrance in addition to its medicinal benefits.
- Where Found: Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region. It is found throughout the USA. See a map here.
- How to Use for Treating Wounds: Use the flowers and stalks to make an infused oil salve or tincture.33
Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Oregano has gotten a lot of attention recently as a natural antibiotic. In one study that tested oregano oil against over a dozen different bacteria, oregano was found to possess a stronger antimicrobial activity compared to antibiotics.
Topically, oregano oil has been shown to reduce infection, help wounds heal, and reduce the appearance of scars.
- Where Found: Oregano and its subspecies can be found throughout the world. It is easy to confuse with other plants, so smell the plant to properly identify.
- How to Use for Treating Wounds: Use just the leaves of the plant to make an infused oil salve or tincture. 34, 35
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
The name Achillea comes from Achilles, who was said to carry it with him to treat his soldiers’ wounds during the Trojan war. Indeed, there are many folk stories around yarrow and it has been used a long time as a natural wound healer.
Yarrow is ideal for healing wounds naturally because it contains volatile oils which reduce inflammation and fight infection. Research has found it effective against various strains of staph bacteria. The salicyclic acid in yarrow can even help stop bleeding.
Test a small amount of yarrow on your skin before applying to a wound. Though rare, some people have severe allergic reactions to yarrow.
Do not give yarrow to pets. It is toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.
- Where Found: Yarrow is found in North America, Europe, and Asia in temperate zones.
- How to Use for Treating Wounds: Harvest the leaves and flowering top of the plant for medicinal use. It is best to dry and then make into an infused oil salve or tincture. However, you can also grind up fresh yarrow with water to make a paste and apply it directly to wounds.36, 37, 38
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Considered a weed, chickweed is one of the most overlooked medicinal plants for healing wounds. It has strong anti-inflammatory properties and is great for treating skin conditions like eczema. As for wounds, chickweed’s antimicrobial properties make it ideal for cuts and burns. Studies have even found that chickweed is effective against hepatitis B, so don’t take this weed for granted.
- Where Found: Native to Europe, chickweed can be found throughout North America. Note that chickweed is very similar to plants in the Cerastium genus. True chickweed will have fine white hairs on the stems which grow in a weave-like pattern. Cerastium have evenly-distributed hairs on the stems.
- How to Use for Treating Wounds: Usually the leaves, stalks and flowers of chickweed are used. The seeds and roots also have medicinal properties though. Make into an infused oil salve or tincture. 39, 40, 41, 42
For those living in North to Central USA, the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central America is a great choice.
Andrew Chevallier’s Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants includes over 500 plants.
In addition to medicinal plants that you’ll be able to forage locally, there are also many remedies from foods found in your cupboards, like coffee and culinary spices. The photographic index is a nice touch.
For those who want to learn medicinal plants growing throughout the United States, read The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and their Uses. It features over 1,000 herbs and 1,500+ photos.
Though a bit dated, The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual is still one of the best guides on how to turn plants into medicine. It includes detailed instructions on how to make infusions, decoctions, distillations, essences, and tinctures. Available for Kindle as well.
Grow Your Own Drugs by James Wong is a good read for those who want to make DIY home remedies for everything from hay fever to razor burn. There are lots of great photos and recipes as well.