Deer Resistant Plants

Plants Deer Don’t Prefer

Each year, I am asked for advice about planting a deer proof garden. I can indeed suggest a range of plants that deer will never touch, that won’t need water, and will never outgrow their spot. In a word: Plastic.

When Plastic Surgery Is A Blessing

Look before you laugh; Plastic plants are far more attractive today than in the past. Indeed, plastic inserts may be invaluable in those pinch-hit situations, such as the upcoming garden wedding immediately after a hailstorm, the garden tour arriving right after a dog-and-cat fight in the border, and so on. For true success, insist that your guests remove their eyeglasses. Those who don’t wear glasses must don the removed glasses of those who do. The result will be dreamily indistinct and your plastic-enhanced garden will be as lovely as those vasoline-smeared-lens shots of insufficiently clad women. (That I know this is proof that I have brothers.)

Sadly, when it comes to real living plants, “deer proof” is not a realizable goal. The best we can hope for is to come up with a list of generally deer resistant plants. What that usually boils down to is

1) a roster of plants that are outright toxic (castor beans, foxglove);
2) plants that deer don’t like well enough to eat all of (ivy, lavender), and
3) plants that grow faster than the deer can eat them (bamboo, grasses).

Bane or Beauty?

Voracious and charming, greedy and beautiful, deer can be the bane or the grace of the garden. Although young deer will eat pretty much anything, mature deer are more discriminating. Sort of. Though there really is no such thing as a deer-proof plant, there definitely are deer resistant ones. Often these are plants with hairy, smelly, waxy, dense, or highly textured foliage.

Over the years, I’ve seen many lists from all over the county citing plants deer love and plants deer hate. Amazingly, some of the same plants appear on each list. Evidently deer in one region happily eat things that deer elsewhere don’t.

Bambi Sees A Different Reality?

Deer can also change their habits: For many years, deer ignored my azaleas, but one spring, they ate them eagerly. I presently have deer that browse the new growth on ivy, which I’ve never seen before. On one notable occasion, a deer ate the better part of a large and extremely toxic angel trumpet (Datura). These glorious plants are renowned for their psychoactive effects, which have been used by shamans for millennia. Though he practically ate the whole thing, there was no dead Bambi to be found afterwards.

The Latest List

I have quite a lot of experience with deer, having been blessed with many of them in each of my gardens. At present, my yard hosts a growing family in the front yard and a clutch of young bucks in the lower back yard. Sometimes my neighbor even calls and asks me to get my deer out of his garden. For what it is worth, I present my current list of plants my personal flock of deer rarely eat (all of):

Bulbs/tubers

Allium              Ornamental onions
Begonia            Begonia (tuberous)
Crocosmia       Crocosmia
Dahlia              Dahlia
Endymion       Spanish bluebells
Freesia             Freesia
Fritillaria         Crown imperials
Galanthus        Snowdrops
Gladiolus         Gladiola
Hyacinthus      Hyacinths
Narcissus         Daffodils
Scilla                 Squills
Polianthes        Tuberose

Shrubs & Subshrubs

Abelia               Abelia
Berberis           Barberry
Brugmansia     Angels trumpet
Buxus               Boxwood
Callicarpa        Beautyberry
Caryopteris     Bluebeard
Ceanothus       California lilac
Clerodendrum        Peanutbutter plant
Cistus                Rockrose
Cotoneaster      Cotoneaster
Daphne             Daphne
Datura               Angels trumpet
Erica                  Heather
Escallonia         Escallonia
Gaultheria        Salal
Hypericum       St. John’s wort
Ilex                    Holly
Juniperus        Juniper
Kerria               Kerria
Kirengeshoma     Shuttlecock flower
Kolkwitzia        Beauty bush
Lavandula        Lavender
Leycesteria       Pagoda shrub
Mahonia           Oregon grape
Nandina           Heavenly bamboo
Picea                 Spruce
Pieris                Lily-of-the-valley shrub
Pinus                Pine
Potentilla         Cinquefoil
Prunus              Laurel
Rhododendron        Rhododendron, Azalea
Rhus                 Sumac
Ribes                Flowering currant
Rosmarinus    Rosemary
Salvia               Sage
Santolina         Lavender cotton
Sarcoccoca      Sweetbox
Senecio            Senecio Sunshine
Skimmia          Skimmia
Spirea              Spirea
Syringa            Lilac
Viburnum       Viburnum

Perennials/grasses

Acanthus         Bear breeches
Aconitum        Monkshood
Achillea           Yarrow
Agastache       Hummingbird plant
Alyssum          Basket-of-gold
Angelica pachycarpa    New Zealand angelica
Artemisia        Artemisia
Aster                Aster
Aubretia          Rockcress
Bergenia          Leatherleaf
Campanula     Bellflower
Chrysanthemum    Chrysanthemum
Crambe            Sea kale
Digitalis           Foxglove
Echinacea        Cone flower
Erigeron           Fleabane
Eryngium         Sea holly
Euphorbia        Spurge
Ferula               Fennel
Fern                  Ferns (most)
Gaillardia        Blanket flower
Geranium        Geranium
Grasses            Grasses (most)
Helleborus      Hellebore
Iris                    Iris
Kniphofia        Poker plant
Lavatera          Mallow
Lupinus           Lupines
Macleaya         Plume poppy
Meconopsis     Welsh poppy
Melianthus      South African honeybush
Monarda          Bee balm
Nepeta              Catmint
Oenothera        Evening primrose
Papaver            Poppies
Penstemon       Beardtongue
Perovskia          Russian sage
Phlomis             Jerusalem sage
Phormium        New Zealand flax
Pulmonaria      Lungwort
Rheum              Rhubarb
Rudbeckia        Black-eyed Susan
Santolina          Lavender cotton
Scabiosa           Pincushion flower
Stachys             Lambs ear
Thymus            Thyme
Verbascum       Mullein
Verbena            Verbena
Viola                  Violets, violas, pansies

Annuals

Alyssum          Sweet alyssum
Calendula       Pot marigold
Clarkia            Farewell to spring
Cleome            Spider flower
Eschscholzia  California poppy
Heliotropus    Heliotrope
Lobelia             Lobelia
Myosotis          Forget-me-nots
Nasturtium     Nasturtium
Nicotiana        Flowering tobacco
Papaver           Poppies
Pelargonium  Geranium
Petunia            Petunia
Ricinus            Castor bean
Tagetes            Marigold
Verbena          Verbena
Viola                Violas, pansies
Zinnia              Zinnia

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3 Responses to Deer Resistant Plants

  1. I’ve been “blessed” with deer in every garden I’ve had and they don’t discriminate of what they eat. They have decimated my Hydrangeas, Mock Orange, Kerria ( the double which is hard to find and propagated from a stick) and yes, Nandina every year. I love to watch them, however, I wished they would find a new Victim. There is so much to eat since we live out of town, but nooo, they have to come to my house. I have noticed also that their taste is changing and will eat things previously left alone.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      You are so right about deer’s changing tastes. The youngsters will eat pretty much anything, at least once! I’ve had good luck with several kinds of repellant sprays, but I find that everything works for a while and nothing works forever, except a curious and territorial dog….

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