People ask me about this all the time. I wish I had a fool proof answer. The problem is that many factors can influence whether deer will eat shrubbery or not. White tailed deer, (Odocoileus virginianus), are beautiful and graceful, but they are a nuisance.
Some plant species have chemicals in them that deer don’t like. Daffodils, are highly poisonous to deer. Tulips are another spring flowering bulb. However, deer will tear them up and devour everything.
Plants containing bitter white latex sap are a general turnoff. Thorny plants aren’t usually appetizing either. Deer seldom like plants that have fuzzy leaves or strong smells.
The most common factor that makes plants attractive to deer is the general availability of food. Deer will eat almost anything if they are starving. During periods of drought, deer will eat many plants they otherwise wouldn’t. Harsh winters cause deer to eat outside their comfort zone.
Some plants go through periods of succulent growth. This can be made worse by overwatering or overfertilization. Succulent growth usually increases palatability. Some species might be consumed in spring and avoided the rest of the year.
Among the native trees deer avoid are pines, magnolias, American holly, live oak and bald cypress. They aren’t particularly crazy over red cedar, river birch, buckeye or devil’s walking stick. Other trees deer don’t like that are commonly sold in nurseries are honey locust, Vitex, crape myrtle and ginkgo.
By contrast, deer love redbud, crabapple, dogwood and most fruit trees. Barriers are often needed to protect these. The same goes for blueberries. Electric fence can be effective. Invisible fence and a good dog can also deter them.
Several common evergreen shrubs are favorite foods of deer. Arborvitae, euonymus, azalea, pittosporum, Indian hawthorn and Japanese aucuba are evergreen shrubs to avoid near high deer populations. The critters don’t particularly like abelia, gardenia, wax myrtle, nandina and oleander. Spicy shrubs like wax myrtle, anise shrub and rosemary aren’t prized by deer either.
Deer aren’t crazy about most of the holly shrubs. An exception is that they occasionally damage Japanese hollies, like ‘Helleri’, ‘compacta’ and ‘soft touch’ cultivars.
Among popular deciduous shrubs, perhaps one of the biggest surprises is that deer like to eat thorny roses. They especially love them during periods of new growth when the prickles are still soft.
Deer even eat the popular knock-out roses. However, their pruning usually doesn’t damage the plants that much. Depending on the season, the pruning can even be beneficial if the deer population isn’t prolific.
Deciduous shrubs deer don’t like are Japanese barberry, beautyberry, butterfly bush and bridal veil spiraea. Fragrant deciduous shrubs like sweet shrub and fothergilla aren’t favorites of deer either.
This is obviously a partial list, even of the trees and shrubs. I decided to profile woody plants first, as they form the foundation of most landscaping.
The main thing to remember is that no plants are deer proof or rabbit proof either. Other strategies should be employed in addition to planting landscaping that generally deters them. Within city limits it’s not possible, but out in the country acquiring a taste for venison can be part of the solution.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.