Deer are herbivores that feed on a wide variety of plant foods. In the wild, they eat leaves, flowers and twigs from trees. They also consume nuts, berries and seeds, such as acorns, blackberries and blueberries. If the food supply in the wild is scarce, deer may graze shrubs in landscapes. There are a few common shrubs deer eat, so plant these if you want to attract deer or avoid them to keep deer away.
The rhododendron genus includes approximately 750 species of rhododendron. Both rhododendron and azalea species fall within the rhododendron genus. Deer love to eat the leaves and flowers off of most azaleas and also eat many lepidote -- small, scaly leaves -- rhododendrons. The leaves and flowers are not the only parts of the plants at risk, however, because deer will eat the woody stems if no other option is available. Although plants can grow back after deer eat them, bucks can damage the structure with their horns.
Euonymus species include a number of vines and deciduous and evergreen shrubs, nearly all of which are a favorite snack for deer. The most common types of euonymus in North American landscapes are winged euonymus, also known as the burning bush, and wintercreeper. Burning bush is widely recognizable in the fall, when its leaves turn a brilliant shade of red before falling off. Although both types of euonymus are at risk to be eaten by deer, wintercreeper is a special favorite among deer. It is not uncommon to see either species eaten down to the ground, wood and all.
If you live in a rural area and have arborvitae growing in your landscape, don't be surprised if you have to regularly fend deer off of your plants. Arborvitae plants have soft, scale-like needles that seem to be a delicacy for deer -- they eat arborvitae any time they can find it. They especially enjoy the tips of new growth, which are even more tender than the rest of the leaves. If only the new growth is eaten the arborvitae will continue to grow, but if all the leaves are stripped you could be left with a bare spot on your plant. A few arborvitae varieties, such as green giant, holmstrup and zebrina arborvitae, are shown to be deer-resistant.
The hydrangea is a medium-size shrub that is a favored landscape food for deer. Deer will eat any hydrangea species when they are hungry. They tend to favor native species such as arborescens and quercifolia, including bigleaf and oakleaf hydrangeas. Other hydrangeas that are particularly attractive to deer are smooth hydrangea and panicle hydrangea. The deer are attracted to the broad, bright-colored foliage and also eat the flowers and soft stems of the plant. Hydrangeas can be protected from deer with fences and screens placed around the plant. Some gardeners hang bar soap or pie tins with fishing line around plants to keep deer away.
- West Virginia University Extension: Resistance of Ornamentals to Deer Damage; John W. Jett
- American Rhododendron Society: Pest Management in the Rhododendron Garden; Bill Stipe
- Savatree: Deer: A Beautiful Disaster for Your Shrubs
- A Tree Grower's Diary: Emerald Green Arborvitae Detailed Facts
- Rutgers University: Landscape Plants Rated By Deer Resistance
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