Deer-Resistant Plants for Homeowners (E3042)

Damage to ornamental plants by whitetailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) continues to increase.

Damage to ornamental plants by whitetailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) continues to increase. This damage has been associated with:

  • Increasing deer abundance.
  • Human population shifts to rural and suburban homesites.
  • Maturing of abandoned agricultural lands into deer habitat.
  • Landowner decisions to prevent deer hunting.
  • Restrictions on firearm use in suburban regions.

Deer prefer to feed on certain plant species, including some ornamental plants used for landscaping. Additionally, ornamental plants may be more attractive to deer because they are fertilized and irrigated. Deer avoid feeding on some species of plants because they are less palatable. A technique to reduce deer browsing of landscape plants is to substitute less palatable species of plants for those that deer prefer to eat. Though no plants are totally resistant to deer browsing, some are less palatable to deer and are less likely to receive heavy damage.

Whether deer will eat a particular plant species or variety depends on the deer’s previous experience, nutritional needs, plant palatability, seasonal factors, weather conditions and the availability of alternative foods. Deer are creatures of habit, and prior movement patterns or foraging experience can help predict where damage can occur. New plantings added to an existing landscape already severely damaged by deer will likely suffer extreme browsing pressure.

Deer may sample some less palatable plants until they determine the plants are varieties they do not prefer. Snow cover may prevent deer from finding food, and high deer numbers can create competition for available food, which can cause hungry deer to eat whatever plants are available. Note that unpalatable landscape plants may still incur antler rubbing damage. Only physical protection such as exclusion techniques can reduce or prevent deer antler rub damage to trees and shrubs.

To minimize deer damage, select landscape and garden plants that are less preferred by deer. The following tables provide a guide to the relative likelihood of deer damage to plants used by Michigan landscape contractors and landowners. This information can be useful for both selecting plants that are less likely to be damaged by deer and identifying those ornamentals that frequently require protection. Plants listed as rarely damaged are infrequently fed upon by deer and are the best candidates for landscapes prone to deer damage. Deer sometimes feed on ornamentals listed as seldom severely damaged, but damage is usually minor and has limited effect on the shape or attractiveness of the plant. The category occasionally damaged includes plants that may be severely damaged by deer. Finally, ornamental plants in the frequently damaged category appear to be preferred by deer and usually require physical or chemical protection whenever deer are present.

Before planting any of the following plant species, check to make sure that they are adapted to local climate and soil conditions. For additional information, contact your local county Michigan State University Extension office.

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