Detering Deer with Native Plants

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener November 2010 issue)

By Cindy Gilberg

an image of swamp milkweed

Swamp milkweed (photo by Robert Weaver)

Attracting wildlife by replacing lost habitat is one of the primary reasons to plant native plants, yet deer are among those who may come to visit. Most of St. Louis County is the territory of a highly adaptable and bold population of deer that continues to cause consternation among gardeners. Knowing which plants have good resistance to deer is the way to a peaceful coexistence with these creatures.

I used to defiantly stand my ground in the garden, armed with deer repellant, but have since decided it is much easier to garden with plants that aren’t palatable to these large herbivores. Rather than continue down the road of frustration, the best advice is to plan a landscape that is about 70-80% deer resistant. That means either eliminating some of your favorite deer-food plants or using them sparingly, with repellant in hand. Since well-fertilized and irrigated landscapes are especially alluring to deer, properly chosen native plants that don’t require the extra care are another way to alleviate this problem.

Shaw Nature Reserve completed a three-year deer browse study this fall in West St. Louis County, deep in the heart of deer country. A wide array of perennial native plants were planted and data was collected to determine what the deer ate and to what degree the plants were consumed. Because deer tend to eat young and succulent first year plants, the study area was fenced the first season.

Certain characteristics make a plant deer resistant. Aromatic foliage is one of these traits and this group includes fall glade onion (Allium stellatum), beebalm (Monarda spp.), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.) and yarrow (Achillea). Texture is another attribute to consider. The tough stems of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), the large spines of prickly pear (Opuntia) or the sharp edges of sedges and some grasses are plants deer avoid in favor of more lush, tender foliage. Fine-textured plants such as the annual palafoxia (Palafoxia callosa) don’t have enough foliage to be of interest. The bitter sap of bluestar

A photograph of Amsonia hubrechtii (blue star)

Amsonia hubrechtii, or blue star (photo by Robert Weaver)

(Amsonia spp.) and some of the milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) contribute to deer resistance. Among the other reliably resistant plants are the copper iris and blue flag iris (Iris fulva; I. virginica), both of which are lovely additions for spring bloom and can grow in both moist and average soil. Coreopsis and Lobelia are consistently resistant as well, and there are a few species to choose from in each genus. For shade gardeners who are replacing hostas, there are many choices. Ferns are deer resistant as well as wild geranium

An image of yellow flowers on Senecio, groundsel

Groundsel (photo by Robert Weaver)

(Geranium maculatum), golden groundsel (Senecio obovatus), skullcap (Scutellaria incana) and columbine. More woodland natives will be added to the study in the future.

Time of year plays a big part in deer browsing habits. Remember that new plantings being nurtured in the establishment phase are particularly attractive to deer and use of a repellant may be a necessity at first. Deer also take notice of succulent, emerging foliage in the spring. Autumn is a high browse period as a second crop of fawns are present and before the acorns fall. Asters are among those plants that deer ignore until fall, attracting attention when they begin to bloom.

So, yes, it is possible to foil the deer and live with them. A complete list of the Shaw Nature Reserve study is available at in the gardening information section. The results are also the topic of the Native Plant School class in July 2011—refer to the schedule at the same website.

Cindy Gilberg is a horticulturist and Missouri native who writes, teaches and does consulting and design work in the St. Louis area. Her articles for The Gateway Gardener are written in collaboration with Shaw Nature Reserve (Missouri Botanical Garden) in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation. You can learn more about and contact Cindy through her website at

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