Deer-resistant Shrubs

Question: This past winter the deer ate several of my shrubs that I was told they wouldn’t touch, including hollies and some low roses. Can you recommend some truly deer-resistant shrubs?

Answer: Oh deer. Looking around the yard, it seems that some deer were never told, “You don’t like that plant!”

In truth, there are certain plants that deer prefer over others, but several factors play into what they will munch.

  • the severity of the winter
  • the availability of other food
  • the size of the local deer population (how many are competing for food)

In short, if they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat (fill in the blank). That doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to seek out and plant “deer-proof” plants; on the contrary it’s a good idea if you live in deer country. Just bear in mind that when and if the deer exhaust their other options, they may sample your shrubs.

Shrubs regarded as highly deer resistant:

Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)
Boxwoods (Buxus spp.)
Butterfly bush (Buddleja spp.)
Caryopteris spp.
Daphne spp. (shown above, Daphne odora)
Elderberries (Sambucus spp.)
Hollies (Ilex spp.)
Leucothoe spp.
Mahonia spp.
Pieris spp.
Viburnum spp.

A fabulous source is “Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance,” a web page created by Rutgers University. It rates a wide range of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and ornamental grasses for how susceptible to deer damage they typically are.

My own parents live in the middle of a deer run, and this past winter most of their trees and shrubs were devoured (as high as the deer can reach, that is)—including a blue spruce. Can you imagine chewing blue spruce needles? The only things that weren’t touched were a hedge of boxwood and some hydrangea (H. macrophylla and H. paniculata). So from personal observation I can recommend you plant those. For reference, my parents live in New England.

Readers, where do you garden and if you deal with deer, what plants have you found they avoid?

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19 thoughts on “Deer-resistant Shrubs

  1. I live in Northern New Jersey. We are over run with deer….i spray with a deer resistant spray once a week. I find that they don’t eat “Deadnettle” and the perennial is foliage pretty and flower pretty! Thye come in white, purple and pink. They are also known as “Lamium”. Only once did the deer nibble ever so slihtly on them during s very dry/hot summer!

  2. In my experience, there is no such thing as deer-proof. Deer here in SE PA don’t read the tags. They love rhodies, ilex, hydrangea, umbrella pine, and even munch heuchera! I have had success with Calicarpa (Beauty Berry) and Calycanthus (Carolina Sweet Shrub). In addition, liberal applications of Milorganite and Liquid Fence help.

  3. Another thought–I find it very helpful to protect all young shrubs–deer like tender new growth. I use 4′ high green fencing wire, purchased in 50′ rolls at the home center, cut off one row of horizontal wire to leave the verticals as little legs to push into the soil. Make a circle of wire bigger than the shrub, cut off one strand of vertical wire to make tabs to connect the circle, place over the shrub, push into the soil. I use these cages to prevent bark damage from buck rubbing in winter, as well. The cages kind of disappear into the background.

  4. I live in the Sierra Foothills, Ca. We have herds of deer that visit daily. I gave up a fenced front garden so that I could grow all my favorites ( old roses etc.). The rear now is planted with iris,(they occ. take a bite of the leaves, euphobias which are never touched, Choisya a lovely shrub, evergreen with white flowers in spring is also never touched. Lavenders have been mixed, they eat Grosso, Santolinia, (grey and green foliage)also never touchedand I have a lot of cacti in colourful pots.

  5. After reading all of the comments I did not see any mention of deer eating nasturtuims, flowers and leaves leaving the long stems onlooking very funny. I wasn’t laughing tho. Have had these flowers for years and never had this happen before. Of course I think hostas are their favorite. I live in north west Ohio not far from a state park so we have lots of deerspring, summer and fall and winter.

  6. From my experience, deer will eat the flowers of Sambuncus, Elderberry “midnight lace”. I try to protect the plant with anti-deer spray and bags hung from the shrub.

  7. In our beautiful wooded valley in northern Delaware, the local herd of about 20 deer eat azaleas, mountain laurel, and in bad winters, rhododendron, spreading juniper, and even strip the ivy off the runners. They have never touched the leucothuoue, pieris japonica, lilac, winterberry, boxwoods, or best of all, the glossy leaves of our new sarcococa, which is low growing and spreading. Highly recommend it. I used to love the deer, but now use a pellet gun to discourage them. The big issue now isn’t the damage they do, but the deer ticks they support. This is my 4th go round with Lyme Disease. I am in the process of stripping everything the deer might like out of my garden, to try to keep ticks out, too.

  8. Deer ( and Woodchucks ) are the the two b plant-eating pests that raid my VT garden; I have found that Dandelions and white clover are eaten readily by both, so I actively encourage both these ‘weeds’ on the perimeter of my beds. The Deer are deterred ( unless VERY desparate ! ) by two MECHANICAL means introduced to me ny group of Master Gardeners in NY;one- hang 6″X 2″ lo white ribbons hung about 4 feet off ground from a post,branch or clothesline so it flutters. As long as you move it a couple of feet laft or right, every couple of weeks, ( deer WILL get used to it ! ),the deer see that fluttering ribbon as a warning signal,like their white tails up when bounding away! Two- deer are hesitant to cross ground that looks like it has black & white stripes onit

  9. I’m a Western Washington gardener near the edge of a commercial forest. We have 4-7 deer that we see almost daily. They generally avoid my Pieris japonica,assorted Berberis,Phlomis,Viburnum rhytidophyllum, most of the strong scented herbs and all my ornamental grasses. When I planted clover to establish qick erosion control in newly graded area after construction, I dicovered that the deer love clover. Nipping off clover blossoms one by one takes a long time and I think diverts their attention from my other plantings. The neighborhood bees are happy too.

  10. I live in Putnam County, NY. High deer density. The only plants they have never, ever eaten are boxwoods and pieris japonica. They ate the hygrangea, rhododendrons, azaleas, arborvitae, weigela and hollies – all on various lists for “deer-resistant plants.” They ate the Japanese maple, the viburnum, and one bad winter ate the junipers. They come all summer and browse the perennials and the annuals but are usually deterred by deer repellant, if I can keep up with spraying every 2 weeks.
    I read that different herds have different tastes, just like people.
    At a local garden tour last summer I saw many people have completely enclosed their yards with fences, usually deer fencing going right up to the garages. I may do that in the future.
    Good luck!

  11. We live in western Washington state and three or four deer prowl the neighborhood. They don’t touch boxwood, scimmia, pieris, etc. mentioned above but have munched on viburnum ‘Tinus’ and fresh leaves of Annabelle hydrangeas. There are so many yummy perennials though. Undoubtedly the large dogs help, but I go after them with an air pistol when I see them.

  12. I live in a mild climate in California, where deer come nibbling year round, but are hungriest in the autumn dry season. I notice that some natives, such as toyon, coffeeberry, mahonia and others are fairly safe once they are past the “baby stage” and no longer get any water. Deer don’t like mature stuff as much as tender shoots.
    They have two habits that upset me. One is the tendency to try something they don’t like, and leave it uprooted behind them. What makes me really angry is that the young bucks get to rubbing their heads or even fighting each other and break branches or even uproot entire saplings of Fremontia, which they never seem to nibble on. My solution: fence them out of part of the yard, and plant the good stuff where they can’t get at it. Leave the rest to them.

  13. I live in California, and we have deer everywhere. So far, they haven’t touched artemisia, euphorbia, berberis, cotinus, lilac, bougainvillea, olive trees, and a fig (though the gophers are desperate to chew its roots). They also have ignored Salvia leucantha but ate other salvias. They’ve left Santa Barbara daisy and ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ so far untouched…

  14. I was shocked to discover my new Mahonia fortunei deer-munched in December! They have never touched my other Mahonias (aquifolium (native here) and any of the hybrid crosses. They have also never eaten any of my Rhododendrons, Junipers or Boxwood. They love Thuja (arborvitae).

  15. I live outside of Boston, MA. Deer are in my yard on a weekly basis. The only plants they have never eaten are boxwood, junipers, and leucothoe. They have eaten rhododendron, azalea, holly, viburnum, hydrangea, bayberry, mountain laurel and a variety of other common shrubs and flowers. I have tried almost every repellent available and the only thing that works is to cover the shrubs with deer netting in October and take it off in May. They typically have other food sources during the summer.

  16. I too live amongst deer. My neighbor was just telling me how the deer snacked on his Forsythia, and how they destroyed his rose garden. I live just across the street,yet my Forsythia is just fine. I wonder if it’s because they hear my two barking dogs?

  17. Unfortunately, the deer in my neck of the woods (southern PA) love all my hydrangeas – my oakleaf Hydrangea quercifolia as well as a few different Hydrangea macrophylla varieties. They have not eaten my rhododendrons or azaleas.

  18. I also live amongst a herd of deer, and I have a love-hate relationship with them. Viburnums are a mixed bag–they eat my V. opulus, but don’t touch my V. x rhytidophylloides ‘Alleghany’, V. plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Shasta’ or ‘Summer Snowflake’, V. Pragense, V. Conoy, V. x juddii, V. nudum ‘Winterthur’, V. dentatum ‘Chicago Luster’. So, most viburnums are deer-resistant.

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