Selecting deer resistant trees and shrubs

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.

Deer love Rhododendrons and azaleas

They also will devour arborvitae

They’re not crazy over Abelia

Magnolia is not on the menu of Odocoileus virginianus either

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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5 Responses to Selecting deer resistant trees and shrubs

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Oh deer! I get the same questions. I have written only a few articles about plants that deer do not eat. The problem is that deer do not read the articles.

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