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Deer Resistant Trees and Shrubs

February 26, 2017

Written by Dave G.

As winter turns to spring, many gardeners are out inspecting their gardens, and all too often they are finding plants damaged by winter. Cold and ice is one thing, but when animal damage is spotted, it can be particularly demoralizing. Of course, we can hardly blame the animals, who only want to survive, but when we see plants chewed to the ground, stripped off lower foliage, or with no bark left, it is hard not to seek revenge.

Rather than trying to keep out the wildlife, a better approach is to modify what you plant. There may be lots of plants loved by your wild neighbors, but there are plenty more that they avoid. When replacing damaged plants, the line of least resistance suggests that the obvious solution is to choose plants that will be ignored next winter.

What Animals Are We Talking About?

Large animals like deer can cause extensive damage to plants, including hedges and windbreaks. Deer typically graze all the foliage to 4 or 5 feet above the ground – sometimes even more. If you find bark stripped from the base of trees, this is mice or vole damage. Voles are close relatives of mice, and they are also known for their characteristic tunnels under the lawn, where they eat grass roots. Bark damage will usually kill a tree, especially if it is all the way round the trunk. New growth will often come in spring, but then suddenly die as the roots starve.

These animals have different feeding preferences, so it is a good idea to first of all identify the problem. If you anticipate mouse or vole damage, repellant sprays can sometimes help, but these are less reliable for deer, and they need frequent re-spraying.

Deer-Resistant Hedges and Screens

Arborvitae, also known as Thuja, is a popular evergreen for hedges, and conflicting reports are everywhere on how resistant to deer this plant actually is. The confusion arises because there being several species of Thuja, and they show different resistance. White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, found in Eastern states, is often eaten by deer, but Western Redcedar, Thuja plicata, is normally left alone. Since this is one of the parents of the popular Green Giant Cedar, that plants resistance to deer is well-documented.

For shady areas Hemlock (Tsuga) makes a beautiful hedge that will be left alone by deer. Soft-foliaged Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria) is also seldom bothered, and they different varieties of this plant are beautiful evergreens for any garden.

Top Deer-Resistant Hedges and Screens

Thuja Green Giant – Because it has genes from the Redcedar, this plant, the best hedging plant you can grow, is also resistant to deer.

Holly (Ilex) – Almost all hollies are left alone by deer. No wonder, with their spiny leaves. Both American holly and the different kinds of Japanese holly are notable for being ignored.

Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) – Not only wonderful with its dramatic steely blue needles, these trees are left alone. Planted more closely, and trimmed from time to time, they make tough hedges and screening plants

Spartan Juniper (Juniperus chinensis) – As well as making wonderful clipped specimens, this tough juniper grows into a beautiful drought-resistant hedge that animals leave alone.

Deer-Resistant Flowering Trees and Shrubs

Turning to flowering trees, besides the issue of winter damage, some trees have fruit that attractive deer, or even moose and elk. Apples – the eating kind and crab-apples too –  are very popular, and deer will stand on their hind-legs to reach those tasty treats, often breaking branches at the same time. Since the bark of apples is a favorite of mice as well, finding a substitute for them is a good idea.

Cherry and plum trees of all kinds are also popular winter food for deer and mice, so they are not good choices if you have problems with your local wildlife. Here are some ideas for beautiful flowering trees that deer and mice will leave alone.

Top Deer-Resistant Flowering Trees

Crape-Myrtle (Lagerstroemia) – With so many varieties is many colors, these are prime choices if deer are your problem. Their continuous flowering and love of heat are also big positive features.

Magnolia – Both the deciduous and evergreen types of magnolia, with their spectacular flowers, are left alone by deer to bloom in gorgeous white or pinks.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier) – This native shrub has beautiful white flowers in early spring, and edible berries, but it is usually left alone by deer.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus) – Smothered in white or pink blooms, all the many kinds of these beautiful trees will generally be left alone, as also will the fruits.

Shrubs That Deer Usually Ignore

Many smaller, shrubby plants are also resistant to deer, including Boxwood for hedges and edging, adding another big plus mark to that valuable plant. Other shrubs that are normally ignored include the following garden-worthy plants.

Top Deer-Resistant Shrubs

Forsythia – Deer won’t bother this cheerful favorite, as it welcomes in spring some of the earliest flowers in your garden.

Smoke Tree (Cotinus) – This is another beautiful tree, usually grown in the form with dramatic purple leaves is left alone by these pesky critters.

Dogwood (Cornus) – Speaking of color, the bright red and yellow winter twigs of these shrubby relatives of the flowering dogwood are also ignored.

Oregon Grape Holly (Mahonia) – With their dramatic yellow flower clusters and large, glossy leaves, these shade-tolerant shrubs tolerate deer just as well.

All in all, there are lots of plants to choose from that deer will normally leave alone. Instead of investing in an expensive fence, or spraying repellents all winter, choose the right plants and you can sit back and know that your garden will be safe until spring arrives.

Comments 29 comments

  1. June 27, 2017 by Phyllis Heitsman

    I’m looking for evergreen tree that deer won’t rut up or eat. Appreciate any help. I live in zone 5.

  2. May 21, 2018 by Carol bednarski

    I just planted two 7 ft flowering dogwoods, with beautiful white flowers yesterday, and this morning woke to find the deer ate the bottom 10 flowering stems off of one of the trees. foot prints in the garden prove it was the deer. so, your claims that they are deer proof and will be left alone are false.

    1. May 21, 2018 by David Goodfellow

      Which just goes to show how unpredictable they are, and why this article is ‘deer resistant. . ‘ and not ‘deer proof’! Maybe the fact that they didn’t eat them to the ground shows they lost interest – maybe they had never encountered them before and were curious. Sorry about your trees, you must be in BC to be growing flowering dogwood in Canada, I am thinking.

      1. June 4, 2018 by Minnow

        Except that this article does have a list of “deer-proof” trees which includes flowering dogwood. It also includes Serviceberry trees – this morning I found deer had been snacking on my new Serviceberry. Not “deer- proof”!

        1. June 4, 2018 by David Goodfellow

          Thanks for the feed-back (but sorry about your Serviceberry!) The article has been amended to reflect your valued input. Deer are very unpredictable, but the trees and shrubs listed here are all shown on many other lists as ‘deer-resistant’. I think it is clear that no-one can make absolute statements about the dining habits of deer!

    2. August 13, 2018 by Kay Ellen

      They didn’t claim “deer proof”. NOTHING is deer proof. They said they were deer resistant. There is a difference. Reading is fundamental.
      Chances are that since the trees were new to the area, the deer were just taste-testing. Probably didn’t like it so will find something they like better in the future.

    3. October 2, 2018 by jennifer

      Carol-
      I’m sorry your trees were foraged. I work in the green industry and must tell you over the years what I’ve learned…No plant is REALLY deer proof- just as some humans are known to eat cardboard and laundry detergent, and children put all kinds of things in their mouths, so are the lives of deer. Any yearling will try something once to see if it makes them sick. Deer often eat from but do not destroy dogwood- every generation tries it once. The availability of food in the area is a direct impact on what they will eat as well. In a very foragable area when things are plentiful, the deer won’t think about your dogwood. But add some new destruction for new home building that wipes out the food sources or even just disrupts the normal grazing paths, and they will fearful of starvation- take in extra foods wherever they find it. Hang in there.
      Jen

    4. July 26, 2019 by Leslie

      We have several dogwoods in our yard and honestly get whole herds of deer. They have never eaten any of them. Frequently fawns will try new things, then once they get an upset stomach they learn.

  3. Agreed, NOTHING is deer proof. My dogwoods, fringe tree, hostas, holly (blue / Mesevereae — the male only), and virtually every other plant labeled deer resistant have been eaten by my resident herd of hooved rats. But there’s good news. Deer are creatures of habit. Takes a bit of work to modify the route(s) they travel on your property, but doing so helps save favorite plants. I use a commercial deer repellent concentrate containing rotten eggs and capsaicin (hot pepper). Follow label instructions for diluting and applying. I spray in early spring as buds are starting to swell (or plants pushing out of ground), a 2nd spray maybe 2-3 weeks later, another spray in 10+ days for NON-resistant plants (think tulips), and finally, an end-of summer / early fall spray. Spray repellents aren’t systemic, so you need to treat new foliage / flower buds as they emerge. But, HUZZAH and HOORAY. After only two years, this spring, the deer didn’t touch any of my plants except a few leaves on one hosta. On the other hand, they figured out they could handle steps, wander onto my front porch and eat all the house plants enjoying summer outside.
    Bottom line is if you REALLY want to prevent deer from nibbling — get a dog, get a gun and install 10′ fencing around your entire property. Otherwise accept that we’re all just trying to make a living.

    1. September 7, 2018 by G Dave

      Wise words indeed!

    2. March 31, 2019 by Livings

      Hi Bucky
      Loved your advice. Well written. I’ll follow it as best as I can.
      We live in Woodstock NY. Are you in a similar area? We’re also new to this.
      Thank you,
      Livings

  4. March 30, 2019 by Susan

    If they are hungry, deer will eat just about everything. We’ve seen them chew on a Spruce tree, a Holly bush, even Lilacs that they are supposedly not supposed to ever touch! Since we are surrounded by woods and the deer use our property as a cut-through, we’ve pretty much given up on planting anything new and what we do have, we fence in so they can’t get to it. Once spring/summer arrive, we can take the fencing down, as they tend to remain in the woods where there is natural food and stay away from our house.

  5. May 27, 2019 by Myrna Ritter

    The only thing the deer do not bother is ornamental grass at any stage of growth. Any small tree, bush or shrub is always a tasty nibble as they pass by. Any bush or tree is beneficial when they need to rub the velvet off their antlers. I invaded their territory, so I abide them & am careful what & where I plant anything.

  6. July 1, 2019 by Pam

    Deer…like most of us…take the path of least resistance. Spring is challenging and until the grass and weeds on our acreage show up, the deer munch on anything green. I have had success putting a large ring of 6” minus very sharp (blasted) rock around trees/ shrubs I want to protect. Deer don’t like to walk on the sharp rock plus it is a great mulch for my plants, decorative (interspersed with lava rock) and offers some fire protection too.

    1. July 1, 2019 by Dave G

      Hey, that is a great tip – I hope you don’t mind if I incorporate it into our advice – deer are a perpetual problem in some areas, for sure.

  7. March 24, 2020 by Michael F

    David and others have “captured” the deer. There is no such thing as deer proof (other than maybe cactus) and fawns will taste everything but the pot or the deck boards once. I have a city green space behind my new house that is a nursery and day care for the resident does. The fawns will chew on things that are “deer resistant” and then spit it out. They will chew newly planted azaleas to the ground but leave the old ones that came with the house alone. Most everything has survived except hostas “deer candy”. Replaced with astilbe. Put deer guard around any new tree regardless

  8. April 21, 2020 by Dana winchenbach

    Just looking for a few trees that deer might not eatdana

  9. May 1, 2020 by Kurt Birkenmaier

    What about Lions Head Japanese Maples. Deer resistant?

    1. May 1, 2020 by Dave G

      Sorry, no Japanese maples are deer resistant.

  10. May 14, 2020 by Susan

    Really enjoy the thread of conversation. Yes gardening with deer 🦌 is best done with tall fencing. I have seen a doe vertical jump 8 ft! Love nature!

  11. June 13, 2020 by Dawn

    gardenias…..never touch them

  12. June 16, 2020 by Stan Biles

    For fifteen years my orchard has been heavily visited by deer all year and almost every day/night. Dogwoods surround the orchard. I have never had any animal damage to my dogwoods. So far they have been deer-proof. My cherry trees and plum trees have not been damaged. They love to eat the new growth and ripe fruit from my apple trees. As the semi-dwarf apple trees grow higher I prune off all lower branches. The deer get a few branches and we get the rest the deer cannot reach on their hind legs. A 70-30 split favoring the upper primates!

  13. August 24, 2020 by Brad

    The more I read reports of claimed deer resistance of Thuja plicata Green Giant, a western Arborvitae variety, the more it irritates me

    This tree is absolutely not resistant in winter to deer here in RI

    My three certified 5 foot specimens were decimated in the classic deer browse 18 inch to 56 inch zone

  14. August 26, 2020 by Psul

    Deer will eat most anything, when hungry and food supply is diminished in the forest…….lumber operations in the NE have removed many cone bearing trees.
    Remember it was their land before we arrived.

  15. I’m in the heart of deer country. Vancouver island Canada
    They do not like anything sharp in their mouths. Like Pampas grass, they don’t like my marigolds, or my lavender or Holy trees. There is another shrub they won’t touch I call it the fire bush because of its colors with little white flowers. I just can’t thing of it’s proper name at the moment.
    Your fences need to be 10 feet high, and get dogs that chase them off. My hounds are lazy and watch them walk by! Hahaha

  16. September 22, 2020 by Lei Tucker

    New to this great site! Our deer recently had a banquet on me of “deer resistant ” plants. When it rains hard you really need to spray once more. It’s Sept. on Vancouver island so keep spray on hand.. Remember bucks in the rut can be dangerous.

  17. October 25, 2020 by Vivienne

    Oh deer… ours are preparing for Xmas and we have found lagerstroemia and Mahonia both appear to be a valuable food source for active fallow deer… even when they have nine acres of other trees and bushes to chews from…! Not impressed and very disappointed… we live in the mountain region 1000ft above sea level just outside Gosford on Central Coast NSW Australia

    1. October 25, 2020 by Dave G

      Well, probably most things are tasty than a tough old gum tree! 🙂

  18. As mentioned earlier, deer will eat most anything, or at least try it out to see if it is to their liking, if they are hungry. We have been in Maine for 10 years. We have researched, studied and selected plants and trees that are so-called “deer resistant”. The deer in our area have tasted everything we have planted. Sometimes nibbling the plant clear down to the ground. All that was left was the nursery tag that stated “deer resistant”. In fall they are stocking up for winter. In winter they are surviving. In spring they are ravenous.

    We mix a solution of water, egg, milk, liquid soap, cayenne pepper, fresh garlic, minced onion and oil of clove. Let it ferment for a few days, strain it through some old window screen and apply it to the trees and shrubs with a garden sprayer. Reapply once a month starting in November until late spring.