Plants That Deer Avoid (Usually)

By Lynn Berry, Certified Master Gardener

White tailled deer near garden

Residential properties, which abut mixed forests, can provide prime grazing for white-tailed deer. Even deer-resistant plants fall victim to foraging fawns who have not yet learned which are their preferred foods.
Photo © 2018 Mary Free

While it is true that deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough, there are many plants that deer usually avoid. In general, deer avoid plants that have hairy leaves or stems, thorns, thick leaves, or strong smells. Deer also pass up most ferns. There are some wonderful alternatives to plants and shrubs that you may have experienced as little more than a deer buffet. I have highlighted two of these plants in this article, Clethra alnifolia, (Sweet Pepperbush or Summersweet) and Baptisia australis, (Blue Wild Indigo), from the list of deer resistant plants at the end of this article.


Clethra alnifolia in woods in July.

Clethra alnifolia in woods in July, Meadowlark Botanical Gardens.
Photo © 2015 Elaine Mills

A native shrub that is rarely browsed by deer is Clethra alnifolia, (Sweet Pepperbush or Summersweet). Sweet pepperbush is a non-demanding deciduous shrub with many attractive attributes besides its unpopularity with deer. Rounded in shape, it reaches a height of 3 to 8 feet with a spread of 4 to 6 feet. It prefers partial shade, although it will tolerate both full sun and heavy shade. It grows well in average soil. Its moisture requirements are medium to wet. In July and August, the bush is covered with fragrant, showy, white to pinkish narrow panicles that are magnets to butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. The flowers give way to attractive brown seed capsules in September. If not eaten by birds and small mammals, the seed capsules persist into winter. The foliage has good fall color ranging from yellow to golden brown. Sweet pepperbush is a good choice for shade or woodland gardens, rain gardens, or near a patio where its lovely, fragrant blooms can be enjoyed in the summer doldrums.

Baptisia australis blooming in May.

Baptisia australis blooming in May.
Photo © 2017 Elaine Mills

To add a pop of blue/purple color to your garden in May and June, consider planting Baptisia australis, (Blue Wild Indigo). This native perennial grows 3 to 5 feet in height. It does best in full sun, although it will tolerate part shade. Blue wild indigo is a low maintenance plant, with dry to medium water requirements. The blue/purple lupine-like flowers are held in erect racemes atop flower spikes that extend well above its foliage mound of blue-green, clover-like leaves. Butterflies and pollinators are attracted to the flowers. The flowers give way to inflated seed pods (about 2 inches long) which turn charcoal black when ripe. The stems with the seed pods can be used in dried flower arrangements.Blue wild indigo is best used as a specimen plant, or in a small group, in borders, cottage gardens, or native plant gardens.

The following is a list of plants to consider if you want to spend more time enjoying the fruits of your gardening labors, and less time daydreaming about how to take revenge on Bambi. Plants that are on the MGNV list of Tried and True Native plants link directly to those pages.

Shrubs

Ilex gabra fruit

Ilex gabra fruit
Photo © 2017 Elaine Mills

Herbaceous Plants

Cardinal Flower

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Photo © 2017 Elaine Mills

A white-tailed doe traverses a residential property that lies between a forested area and the Yantic River in CT

A white-tailed doe traverses a residential property that lies between a forested area and the Yantic River in CT
Photo © 2018 Mary Free

References:

Clausen, R. R., & Detrick, A. (2011). 50 beautiful deer-resistant plants: the prettiest annuals, perennials, shrubs, ferns, bulbs, and shrubs that deer don’t eat. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.

Nitzsche, P., Perdomo, P., & Drake, D. (n.d.). Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance. Retrieved February 26, 2018, from https://njaes.rutgers.edu/deer-resistant-plants/

Slattery, B., Reshetiloff, K., & Zwicker, S. M. (2005). Native plants for wildlife habitat and conservation landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

 

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