Many gardeners have had the experience of planting new shrubs or perennials, taking care of them as they are becoming well-established, and then – one morning – finding the new plants have been eaten down to the ground. Yes, those beautiful, seemingly shy, deer that roam through your suburban or country neighborhood are also relentless foragers that can reek havoc on your home ornamental garden.
What is a gardener to do? Instead of installing an eight-foot tall fence around your yard or spraying all of your plants with a deer repellent after every rain, one solution is to increase the number of deer resistant plants in your landscape. While it may be that no plant is 100% deer proof, there are a number of native plant species found in the southeastern United States that deer do not like and are unlikely to eat.
One of these is beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, a deciduous shrub species that grows in open woodlands. It can take partial shade or full sun and moist or dry soil conditions. In the late summer or early fall it forms clusters of purple berries, which contrast nicely against its yellow fall foliage.
Another open woodland shrub found throughout the Southeast is buckeye. Aesculus pavia is the buckeye species most often available in plant nurseries. It sends up columns of red tubular flowers in the Spring. Other species of buckeye have white or pale yellow flowers. Buckeye leaves are arranged like fingers on a hand. Watching them slowly unfold over the course of two or three days in early spring is one of the pleasures of being an observant gardener.
Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, has one of the most beautiful flowers of the native woodland. This shrub is normally found in cool moist woods close to streams, but may also be spotted on upland slopes or ridges. It can handle a moderately dry location but will need regular watering to get fully established. Mountain laurel prefers full to partial shade.
Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, in an evergreen fern species. Like mountain laurel, it is normally seen on shady, moist slopes or near streams. It is remarkably adaptable to much drier and somewhat sunny conditions, and once established, will typically do very well, even with moderately harsh conditions and neglect.
Two perennial species complete this list. While it is possible that either of these will be munched on by deer, most likely they will have sampled all the other plants in your garden first! Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, is found in open fields and is often seen along rural highways. It likes sun and has orange flowers that bloom in early summer. Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, is restricted to shaded locations and prefers regular watering. It has large, distinctive, umbrella-shaped leaves and can colonize large areas over time.
All of the plants listed above have much to offer and are a worthwhile addition to the garden, even when deer are not a problem. If the local deer population is large enough that your garden is under attack, these plants will hopefully send the deer on their way in search of tastier treats in someone else’s yard!