WE ALL WANT the cheatsheet—the list that simply, clearly spells out the plants we can feel confident planting, even if deer may visit the garden, even if we have no fence. And the list of deer-resistant or deer-proof plants must be location-specific, for “our” deer, of course.
Matters of regionality, seasonality and even aberrant weather patterns can change what deer eat, so no two regions or even areas within a region have the same list of “safe” plants, nor is the “safe” list even safe perennially in the same spot. Under duress, in shifting circumstances—from drought, snowload, you name it—deer will at least try eating anything, it seems.
Generally speaking, you’re safest with plants that are aromatic (think mint, or Artemisia); plants that have latex sap; or are even rated as “poisonous” (Narcissus is a commonly cited example). But biologists have demonstrated that deer do, in fact, eat some toxic plants with no ill effect, especially in spring, probably owing to various factors including the animals’ gut chemistry, stomach structure and even how they practice “cautious sampling” (rather than gorging on too much of something all at once). Fascinating—though not very helpful to us as gardeners wishing to protect the bed or border.
Many native plants seem to resist wildlife pressure compared to garden ornamentals of an introduced nature—but then deer in Alaska, for instance, eat skunk cabbage (despite the toxins/oxalic acid it contains). There are many such examples, and actually concerns, that increased deer browse by larger populations is negatively affecting native forest vegetation, especially in the East. Penn State, the Harvard Forest and others are conducting longterm studies.
But back to the smaller matter of the garden: Fuzzy leaves or spiny parts may help discourage browsing, too (but I know: they ate your roses, so who am I kidding?). Again, all the suggested guidelines are just that: suggestions, not ironclad solutions.
Having been gnawed into submission many years ago, I’m a fencer—not a swordsman, but someone who lives behind an 8-foot fence (here’s my page about fences, the ultimate deer protection). My friend Adam Wheeler of Broken Arrow in Connecticut is a nurseryman whose job is to search for cool new plants for customers. Many of those people shop for deer-resistance specifically, and garden unfenced as Adam does–offering these insights about what works (including all the plants below, and many more).
the lists and links
I’VE GATHERED references below, and though I’ve mostly grouped them by region, I suggest browsing outside your zone because you’ll start to notice commonalities–plants that seem to work everywhere, which makes them a really good bet.
for native-plant enthusiasts
- This resource, created in southeastern Pennsylvania at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, tracked deer-resistant natives in a chart.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has likewise created a collection of recommended plants.
- The Ohio Landscape Association’s list includes some of my favorites listed as ones deer there eat “less often,” including smokebush (Cotinus), and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora).
- From Michigan State, a bulletin on deer-resistant plants for homeowners.
- Rutgers University’s deer-resistance database (sample screenshot above) rates plants from in four categories, from “rarely damaged” through “frequently severely damaged.”
- Mohonk Mountain House National Historic Landmark, in New York State, offers “plant recommendations for the deer-infested garden.”
- Cornell professor Mark Bridgen’s chart of “plants deer do not like to eat,” from boxwood and bayberry to Nicotiana and Agastache.
- University of Connecticut’s Plant Database can be filtered for deer resistance (tick the box for “deer resistance” under the heading “special qualities”).
- Penn State Extension deer-resistant plant list and a deer- and rabbit-resistant bulletin.
- North Carolina State’s roundup of links about reducing deer damage, plus a list of recommended plants.
- The State Arboretum of Virginia’s list (which cites my Aesculus, too–again, looking at lists outside your own area can underscore that some plants are widely considered resistant).
- Maryland Cooperative Extension’s “Resistance of Ornamentals to Deer Damage” fact sheet, plus plant list.
west and southwest
- Colorado State University Extension’s fact sheet on preventing deer damage.
- Deer-resistant plants, from Texas A&M horticulture.
- From Arizona State, a list of deer- and rabbit-resistant plants (a two-fer!).
- University of California’s deer-resistant plant list for Sonoma County.
- University of California’s deer-resistant plant list for the Sierra foothills.
- University of Washington’s list.
(Photo of white-tailed deer grazing, from Wikimedia Commons.)