Is There Anything Deer Will Not Eat?

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension
Ornamental grasses like this pink muhly grass are rarely bothered by deer.

Ornamental grasses like this pink muhly grass are rarely bothered by deer.

High populations and disappearing woodland habitat are forcing deer to seek food in our backyards and gardens. One of the easiest ways to minimize deer damage in your yard is to landscape with plants deer prefer not to eat. While no plant is deer proof, there are many good landscape plants for this area that deer find less palatable – a solution that is both effective and relatively low-cost, once you know which plants to choose.

Deer Resistant Trees and Shrubs

Like goats, deer are browsers who feed on a variety of plants, including trees and shrubs. Large trees tend to be spared simply because they are too tall for deer to reach all but the lowest branches, leaving small trees and shrubs to bear the brunt of the damage, especially in winter. There are several trees and shrubs that have withstood the test of time and proven to be deer resistant. This does not mean deer will not eat them if it comes down to a choice between eating something they don’t like and starving to death. But most of the time these are varieties deer will pass over in favor of other plants.

Deer resistant small and medium size trees include river birch, crape myrtle, Carolina cherrylaurel, and chaste tree (Vitex), all of which are tough, drought tolerant landscape plants. Evergreen shrubs for sun that deer prefer not to eat include pineapple guava, yaupon, Chinese juniper, wax myrtle, oleander, rosemary, gardenia, nandina, and Chinese holly, varieties of which include ‘Needlepoint’ and ‘Carissa’.

In shady sites try Japanese plum yew, available in both low growing and upright varieties, or dwarf palmetto or needle palm, both of which are hardy shrub forming palms. In fact, palms as a group are rarely damaged by deer. Other hardy palms for our area include the trunk forming Chinese windmill palm, which appreciates a little shade, and the stouter, more sun tolerant palmetto palm.

Unpalatable Perennials and Grasses

Though flowers are a deer favorite, there are several perennials they find less tasty and are less likely to damage. These include drought tolerant, sun loving perennials like the silver leaved ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia, colorful lantana, spring blooming false indigo (Baptisia) and Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii), summer blooming purple coneflowers, cestrum and gaura, and summer and fall flowering perennial salvias like Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), Texas sage (Salvia greggii), and ‘Black and Blue’ anise sage (Salvia guaranitica).

On the whole, deer generally avoid eating ornamental grasses, which is great for gardeners since this group includes many tough, attractive and low maintenance options. There are lots of ornamental grasses available. Some of the most dependable for our area include the many varieties of Miscanthus, pink muhly grass, panic grass (Panicum virgatum) and hardy fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuriodes).

Another group of plants deer dislike is ferns, which are great for moist shady sites. Reliable perennial ferns for SE NC include Japanese painted fern, lady fern, and cinnamon fern, all which go dormant in the winter, as well autumn fern, Christmas fern, holly fern, and southern shield fern, which remain evergreen throughout the year.

Deer Favorites

Perennial black eye susan

Black eye susans are tough perennials, but are a favorite of deer.

As well as knowing which plants deer dislike, it is equally important to know which plants are their favorites. In southeastern NC common landscape plants deer love to eat include redbud (Cercis canadensis), Japanese euonymous, Indian hawthorn, pittosporums, fatsia, aucuba, arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) azaleas (flowers especially), roses (flowers once again), ivy, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), hosta, daylilies, black eye Susans (Rudbeckia), clematis, sweet potato vines, pansies and impatiens. Avoid planting these deer favorites if your landscape is frequently visited by deer!

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