Stressed, hungry deer will eat almost anything, but your installations may stand up to browsing if you specify plants reputed to be deer-resistant.

Trees and shrubs

When selecting woody plants for the landscape, it’s easy to find suitable plants that don’t tempt the taste buds of hungry deer.

  • Berberis thunbergii (Japanese barberry)
  • Buddleia davidii (butterfly bush)
  • Buxus microphylla (boxwood)
  • Cotoneaster spp. (cotoneaster)
  • Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar)
  • Juniperus communis (common juniper, ‘Gold Cone’)
  • Juniperus horizontalis (creeping juniper)
  • Juniperus procumbens (Japanese juniper)
  • Juniperus scopulorum (skyrocket juniper)
  • Leucothoe fontanesiana (drooping leucothoe)
  • × Mahoberberis (cultivar: Dart’s Treasure)
  • Mahonia bealei (leatherleaf grapeholly)
  • Myrica pensylvanica (northern bayberry)
  • Osmanthus heterophyllus variegatus (variegated false holly)
  • Paeonia suffruticosa (tree peony)
  • Picea abies (Norway spruce)
  • Picea glauca (white spruce)
  • Picea pungens glauca (Colorado blue spruce)
  • Pieris japonica (Japanese andromeda)
  • Platinus occidentalis (American sycamore)
  • Potentilla fruticosa (cinquefoil)
  • Skimmia japonica (skimmia)
  • Vitex agnus-castus (hemp tree)

Is 2012 turning out to be the hottest year ever? The National Climate Data Center has reported that during the first week in July, 145 locations in the continental U.S. experienced high temperatures that either broke or tied records, leading many to declare the first half of 2012 to be the warmest since 1895, the first year records were kept. Historic highs were noted in 173 locations in late June; in mid-July, the heat was turned up again, reaching high 90s and 100s across the continent.

Planting deer-resistant plants can help mitigate damage from ravenous deer, especially during times of environmental stress that may increase browsing pressure.
Photo courtesy Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service;

And dry? Officials from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reported in July that ” … more of the United States is in moderate drought or worse than at any other time in the 12-year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor.” NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) claims this spate of aridity is the worst since 1956, with 56 percent of the landmass comprising the contiguous 48 states experiencing various stages of drought, many in the severe or extreme stages. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared more than 1,000 counties in 26 states natural disaster areas, the largest such declaration ever for the agency.

What does that have to do with deer? Plenty. While growers and landscape professionals are challenged to nurture healthy plants, the combination of heat and drought creates a

Deer damage is evident on young trees planted on church property in Omaha, Neb. The church adjoins a small creek and some agricultural land, and deer are common in the area.
Photo courtesy David Mooter, Prairie Silvics, Inc.;

tremendous challenge for wildlife desperate for sustenance. In some parts of the country, protecting plants from deer browsing is an ongoing battle no matter what the weather. But as natural sources of food and water dry up, hungry pests roam far beyond their comfort zones to seek other meals. Stressed as they are, deer will challenge even the best-manufactured deterrents in order to find a decent meal.

Plants to the rescue

You’ve tried everything to keep deer from damaging landscape installations, but let’s face it: If they’re starving, they’ll make a meal of whatever is available. When browsing pressure reaches a critical point, even tried-and-true plants may suffer some damage. And no plant can truly be considered “deer-proof.”

If anyone knows that, it’s Mark Bridgen, a professor of horticulture at Cornell University and Director of the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, N.Y. He has researched this topic for more than 25 years, testing plants professionally and in his own gardens in Connecticut and eastern Long Island.

Herbaceous perennials

Choose among these outstanding perennials for a landscape that will stand up to deer pressure.

  • Aconitum napellus (monkshood)
  • Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’ (bishop’s goutweed)
  • Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop)
  • Allium schoenoprasum (chives)
  • Allium tuberosum (garlic chives)
  • Amsonia tabernaemontana (blue star)
  • Artemesia ludoviciana (white sage)
  • Artemesia schmidtiana (wormwood)
  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)
  • Athyrium nipponicum pictum (Japanese painted fern)
  • Calamintha grandiflora (calamint)
  • Carex spp. (Japanese sedge)
  • Cerastium tomentosum (snow-in-summer)
  • Dicentra eximia (fringed bleeding heart)
  • Dicentra spectabilis (bleeding heart)
  • Digitalis purpurea (foxglove)
  • Dryopteris marginalis (wood fern)
  • Epimedium spp. (barrenwort)
  • Euphorbia spp. (spurge)
  • Fritillaria imperialis (fritillaria)
  • Galanthus nivalis (snow drops)
  • Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore)
  • Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose)
  • Lamiastrum galeobdolon ‘Variegatum’ (yellow archangel)
  • Lamium maculatum (spotted dead nettle)
  • Lavendula angustifolia (lavender)
  • Lespedeza bicolor (bush clover)
  • Leucojum vernum (spring snow flake)
  • Ligularia dentate (ragwort)
  • Lysimachia nummularia (creeping Jenny; moneywort)
  • Marrubium vulgare (horehound)
  • Mazus reptans (creeping mazus)
  • Melissa officinalis aurea (lemon balm)
  • Mentha spp. (mint)
  • Narcissus spp. and hybrids (daffodil)
  • Nepeta mussinii (catnip)
  • Opuntia humifusa (prickly pear cactus)
  • Origanum vulgare (marjorana) (oregano; marjoram)
  • Pachysandra procumbens (Allegheny spurge)
  • Pachysandra terminalis (pachysandra)
  • Paeonia hybrids (Chinese peony)
  • Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage)
  • Petasites japonicus (Japanese butterbur)
  • Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple)
  • Rheum rhabarbarum (rhubarb)
  • Ruta graveolens (rue)
  • Salvia officinalis (culinary sage)
  • Santolina chamaecyparissus (lavender cotton)
  • Santolina virens (green lavender cotton)
  • Cytisus scoparius (Scotch broom)
  • Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ear)
  • Tanacetum parthenium (feverfew)
  • Teucrium chamaedrys (germander)
  • Thymus spp. (thyme)
  • Verbascum olympicum (mullein)
  • Vinca minor (periwinkle)

Over the years, Bridgen has developed a list of plants that, in his personal experience, are known to be unpalatable to deer. Rather than burden these plants with the epithet “deer-resistant” – Bridgen points out that no plant “actively resists deer” – he calls his list “Dr. Mark Bridgen’s List of Plants That Deer Do Not Like to Eat.”

Bridgen wrote about many of these plants for American Nurseryman in 2008, but in the ensuing years he’s expanded his selections based on further hands-on research. The list now includes nearly 100 annuals, grasses, perennials and woody plants that can stand the pressure and contribute to a handsome and healthy landscape.


Many annual selections that provide a season of brilliant color also withstand the occasional tasting by our deer friends. The plants that make Bridgen’s list of plants deer don’t like to eat are:

  • Antirrhinum majus (snapdragon)
  • Asparagus springerii (asparagus fern)
  • Begonia sempervirens (wax begonia)
  • Cleome hasslerana (spider flower
  • Colocasia esculenta (elephant ear)
  • Datura spp. (angel’s trumpet)
  • Lobularia maritima (sweet alyssum)
  • Nicotiana sylvestris (tobacco flower)
  • Senecio cineraria (dusty miller)

Colocasia, also known as elephant’s ear, is one of many annual plants that don’t appeal to deer.
Photo courtesy PlantHaven


Bridgen has tested and recommends a number of ornamental grasses, including one considered an annual in Northern zones: Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’. Perennial grasses that qualify as unpalatable range from Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (golden variegated hakonechloa) to Phalaris arundinacea picta (ribbon grass).

Many ornamental grasses, such as this Pennisetum, are generally off the menu for hungry deer.
Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

Commonly used selections, such as Miscanthus sinensis (Chinese silver grass), Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) and Pennisetum alopecuroides (perennial fountain grass) are stalwarts in the garden that provide structure, color, movement and even sound.

With literally thousands of species, there’s a Euphorbia (spurge) to fit nearly every landscape design.
Photo courtesy Sunshine Farm & Gardens

Yes, so many other grasses are available on the market, and Bridgen states that he believes most grasses are not on the menu for deer. Remember, though, that in extraordinary circumstances, even humans will eat things that aren’t necessarily first choice.

Butterflies love it, but deer aren’t impressed by the taste of Buddleia.
Photo courtesy Hines Growers LLC


Hellebores lend welcome color and texture to the shade garden.
Photo courtesy Skagit Gardens

Good news! There’s a wide variety of herbaceous perennials that deer won’t eat, according to Bridgen. A nibble or two won’t really hurt these selections, and when deer realize the taste isn’t worth the trouble, they’ll leave the plants alone. When they do, the landscape will be free to grow forth and prosper.

Among the perennials deer tend to avoid are bulbs (with the exception of tulips), particularly those in the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), which includes daffodils, snowdrops and spring snow flakes. These contain lycorine, a bitter, poisonous substance – one bite and deer will move on.

The list of perennials Bridgen recommends is long, so we’ve included the plant names in a handy list on page 26.

Trees and shrubs

Woody plants are every bit as tempting to deer as annuals and herbaceous perennials are, luring

Often called hummingbird mint, perennial Agastache provides eye-catching color that attracts a number of beneficial pollinators to the garden.
Top Photo courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries
Bottom Photo courtesy Skagit Gardens

ravenous ruminants with the promise of succulent leaves and bark. Even needled evergreens can fall victim. If a bit of foliage is munched or bark is stripped, trees and shrubs can generally recover. Their aesthetic value is compromised, but the plants’ overall health may not be in jeopardy. However, should deer browsing succeed in girdling a trunk, thus interrupting the flow of life-sustaining fluids, the loss can be catastrophic.

Impressive foliage and bright flowers make Ligularia an outstanding choice for landscapes where deer pressure is strong.
Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

There are 23 woody perennial plants that Bridgen recommends; in his experience, these are trees and shrubs that have withstood the challenge of hungry deer in an area where the deer pressure is strong. Several of the selections are landscape veterans – the deer-repellent properties of Japanese barberry are well-known – and others may prove to be just the right new addition to your clients’ property. Check out the complete list below.

Your microclimate, your zone, your clients’ tastes – there are so many factors that must be considered when choosing suitable plants for the landscape. Even if deer don’t present a threat today, why not make your selections from the wide variety of plants that deer don’t like to eat? Take the most tempting entrees off the menu, substitute hardy and beautiful alternatives, and the garden will thrive for years to come.

Cinquefoil (Potentilla) is among the many woody perennial plants that can stand up to deer browsing.
Photo courtesy PlantHaven

Sally Benson is editorial director of American Nurseryman. She can be reached at Dr. Mark Bridgen can be reached at