Ornamentals and Deer: Realities and Landscape Plant Options

There is much frustration toward the prevalence of deer and the damage they cause.
Ornamentals and Deer: Realities and Landscape Plant Options - Articles


Many homeowners, golf course superintendents, landscape maintenance firms, and public and private park facility managers express frustration toward the prevalence of deer and the damage they cause through browsing and rubbing their antlers on prized landscape ornamentals throughout the year. Unfortunately, there are few simple solutions to preventing deer damage without eliminating deer completely, which is not an option. In reality, deer management in the landscape will require an integrated pest management (IPM) approach including monitoring deer pressure and population, fencing or excluding deer from prized or highly sensitive areas, using repellents, and choosing less preferred plant species.

Deer are adaptive and are selective feeders. Choosing your plants carefully combined with using fences and repellents to prevent or reduce damage to your cherished ornamentals may be necessary. Understanding deer and their feeding habits may be helpful in planning your landscape with deer in mind.

Deer feeding habits are affected by:

  • Experience and previous movement patterns
  • Nutritional needs
  • Plant palatability
  • Seasonal plant availability
  • Weather conditions
  • Geographic area
  • Availability of alternative foods

Available food sources will change with the seasons and the local geography, thus changing the level of damage and the types of plants damaged by deer. A plant not commonly browsed during the summer may become a food source for deer in years in which the winter is long and cold. Deep or persistent snow cover on the ground for extended periods may also cause deer to seek alternative browse in the area.

Plants promoted as "deer resistant" often have common characteristics such as hairy, rough, or spiny stem and leaf texture, or the presence of aromatic compounds in the stems or leaves. For example, lavender and boxwood are considtered aromatic plants, whereas lamb's ear and oakleaf hydrangea possess leaf textures thought to be distasteful to deer.

During harsh winters when common food sources are scarce, even plants not normally preferred by deer may be damaged. Early spring succulent growth may also render a reportedly undesirable plant very susceptible. For example, the succulent new growth of Berberis thunbergii (barberry) can be a browse choice during the spring and early summer, especially if previously available browse has been eliminated by overgrazing. Similarly, plants commonly not damaged in one region may be damaged in other regions where food options vary. For this reason, care should be taken in relying on lists of plants reported to be not preferred by deer. Your observation and monitoring will help you to determine the plants preferred by deer in your area and under your seasonal and climatic conditions throughout the year. Recording the types of plants not damaged by deer in your area is the best way to create a reliable preference list. Recognizing available browse, weather conditions, seasons, and deer habits will help you to plan your deer and plant management activities. Implementing the use of repellents and physical barriers (fencing), choosing plants wisely, and managing the deer population in the area are the best ways of reducing deer damage in the landscape.

The following list represents a compilation of plants that have been observed by landscapers, nursery operators, horticulturists, researchers, and extension personnel to be less preferred by deer. This list is not complete and no plant is safe under all conditions. Almost any plant is at risk for deer browsing if other conditions are stressing the herd.The purpose of this list is to provide ideas for selecting plants for high deer damage areas of Pennsylvania. As always, when choosing plants for your landscape, consider the hardiness zone, soil conditions, topography, moisture availability, cultural requirements, relative size and growth rate, and local climatic conditions before purchasing and planting.

Landscape Plants Rarely Damaged by Deer

Table 1: Trees
Botanical NameCommon NameUSDA Hardiness
Aesculus parvifloraBottlebrush Buckeye4-8
Betula albo-sinensisChinese Paper Birch5-6
Betula nigra 'Heritage'Heritage River Birch3-9
Betula papyriferaPaper Birch2-6
Chamaecyparis pisiferaJapanese Falsecypress4-8
Cryptomeria japonicaJapanese Cedar5-6
Juniperus scropulorumRocky Mountain Juniper3-7
Ostrya virginianaIronwood3-9
Picea pungensColorado Blue Spruce3-7
Pinus sylvestrisScotch Pine3-7
Pseudotsuga menziesiiDouglas Fir4-6
Table 2: Shrubs, ground covers and climbers
Botanical NameCommon NameUSDA Hardiness
Arctostaphylos uva-ursiBearberry2-6
Asimina trilobaPawpaw5-8
Berberis spp.Barberry4-8
Buddleia davidiiButterfly bush5-9
Buxus spp.Boxwood5-9
Caryopteris x clandonensisBluebeard6-9
Cephalotaxus harringtoniaJapanese Plum-Yew6-9
Gaultheria procumbensCreeping Wintergreen3-5
Juniperus horizontalisCreeping Juniper4-9
Juniperus confertaShore Juniper5-9
Leucothoe spp.Leucothoe5-8
Nandina domesticaNandina6-9
Pachysandra procumbensAllegheny Spurge5-9
Pachysandra terminalisJapanese Spurge4-8
Sambucus canadensisAmerican Elderberry4-9
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilisDwarf Sweet Box6-8
Vinca minorPeriwinkle4-8
Vitex spChastetree6-9
Table 3 Annuals, perennials, bulbs
Botanical NameCommon NameUSDA Hardiness
Achillea spp.Yarrow3-8
Aconitum spp.Monkshood4-8
Ajuga reptansBugleweed3-9
Allium christophiiStar of Persia4-8
Anethum graveolensCommon DillAnnual
Antirrhinum majusSnapdragonAnnual
Aquilegia spp.Columbine3-9
Arabis spp.Rock-cress4-7
Arisaema triphyllumJack-in-the-Pulpit4-9
Aubrieta deltoideaRock Cress4-8
Aurinia saxatilisBasket-of-Gold
Bergenia spp.Berginia3-8
Ceratostigma plumbaginoidesPlumbago5-9
Cimicifuga racemosaSnakeroot3-8
Colchicum spp.Colchicum5-7
Convillaria majalisLily-of-the-Valley2-7
Dicentra spectabilisBleeding Heart3-9
Digitalis spp.Foxglove3-8
Dryopteris marginalisWood Fern3-8
Epimedium sppBarrenwort4-8
Euphorbia spp.Euphorbia4-8
Fritillaria spp.Fritillary5-8
Galium odoratumSweet Woodruff4-8
Helleborus orientalisLenten Rose4-9
Hesperis matronalisDame's Rocket3-8
Hyacinthus orientalisHyacinth3-7
Lamium maculatumDeadnettle3-8
Lavandula spp.Lavender5-9
Lobularia maritimaSweet AlyssumAnnual
Lychnis coronariaRose Champion4-8
Matteuccia struthiopterisOstrich Fern4-7
Narcissus spp.Daffodil4-8
Nicotiana spp.Flowering TobaccoAnnual
Osmunda regalis var. spectabilisRoyal Fern3-10
Papaver orientaleOriental Poppy3-7
Pelargonium graveolensScented Geranium10 (Annual)
Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red'Husker Red Penstemon3-8
Pervoskia atriplicifoliaRussian Sage5-9
Pulmonaria sp.Lungwort3-8
Rheum rhabarbarumRhubarb4-7
Santolina chamaecyparissusLavender Cotton6-8
Scilla spp.Squill2-8
Stachys byzantinaLamb's Ears4-8
Tagetes spp.MarigoldAnnual
Tanacetum vulgareCommon Tansy3-9
Thymus spp.Thyme3-8
Tiarella cordifoliaFoam Flower3-8

Prepared by Jim Sellmer, professor of ornamental horticulture; Gary San Julian, retired professor of wildlife ecology; and Rick Bates, professor of ornamental horticulture.