Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Where deer are concerned, there is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that no plant is 100% deer proof. The good news is that there are plants that deer will only eat as a last resort.
In general, deer tend to avoid strongly scented plants like herbs, plants with thick or leathery leaves such as yucca and thorny plants such as holly and thistle. Strangely enough, they don't mind the thorns on rose bushes and will happily munch them to the ground.
Bear in mind though that fawns will sample everything as they learn which plants are most palatable. There are also regional differences in which plants deer eat and don't eat. And within the same geographic location, there can be differences in diet between herds of deer. The deer living in my neighborhood eat all of my lilies, but the deer in the next town don't bother my friend's lilies.
Larger, established plants usually recover from mild browsing during the growing season. Plants that are lightly nibbled by deer during winter dormancy generally recover in the spring. When adding new plants to your garden, don't take the word of the nursery from which you purchased them. Test their deer resistance yourself by putting them outside in a container for a few days before planting them in your garden to see if your local herd has a taste for them.
Sun Loving Plants That Deer Seldom Eat
For early springtime color, try bulbs like daffodils, hyacinths and Crown Imperials. A note of caution: don't plant the Crown Imperials too close to your house. The bulbs have a very strong odor even underground. The odor is said to resemble fox, but to me it smells like skunk.
Later in the spring you can use old-fashioned favorites like bleeding heart, columbine, lily of the valley and foxglove. All of them come in multiple sizes and colors. Even the lily of the valley! You can get them in pink instead of the usual white, but beware, the pink ones are very pricey.
For summer long color, annuals such as calendulas, marigolds, nasturtium, sweet alyssum and zinnias are good choices. All require full sun, which is defined as 6 to 8 hours per day. My personal favorite are zinnias because of the many choices of colors and sizes. There is a zinnia for every situation! And hummingbirds love them.
Shade Plants That Deer Seldom Eat
If you have a shady yard, don't despair. Hostas may be deer candy but ferns are rarely eaten. There are many to choose from ranging from the small but colorful Japanese Painted Fern all the way up to the elegantly tall Ostrich Fern. As an added bonus, ferns don't mind a little dryness so you won't need to water them every day.
If you want color, astilbe are seldom bothered by deer. These perennial plants prefer shade but unlike most shade plants have colorful flowers that can be white, pink, red, or purple. The flowers are airy plumes that range in size from 1 to 4 feet tall, adding drama to that shady corner of your yard. Unlike ferns, astilbe like to be moist so don't let them dry out.
Ornamental Grasses That Deer Seldom Eat
Ornamental grasses are popular landscape plants and surprisingly, deer tend to stay away from them. The brightly colored Japanese Blood Grass is a popular choice. If you enjoying making dried flower arrangements, you will want to plant Northern Sea Oats. My personal experience has been that the dried flowers of the Northern Sea oats are lovely, but if left on the plants, reseed aggressively throughout the garden.
Shrubs That Deer Seldom Eat
When it comes to shrubs, who doesn't love lilacs? Deer, that's who! They also avoid butterfly bushes, boxwood, forsythia and Rose of Sharon. And it's a good thing because planting these will give you months of color starting with forsythia in the early spring, lilacs in the late spring, butterfly bushes during the summer and then Rose of Sharon in late summer. You have your choice of colors too. Here's a fun fact about lilacs - the different color flowers (white, lavender, red) all smell differently.
Your local extension office can provide you with a comprehensive list of flowers, herbs, shrubs and trees rated for deer resistance in your area. The ratings will tell you which plants deer love, which plants are second choices for them and which plants are off their menu except during times when there is no other food available to them.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do deer eat begonias?
Answer: Surprisingly, begonias are deer-resistant. These include the different varieties such as tuberous begonias, wax begonias, rex begonias, and dragon wing begonias.
Question: Do deer eat geraniums?
Answer: Geraniums are considered deer-resistant because of the strong smell of the leaves. However, a hungry deer will eat anything, so if there is nothing else to eat, they will eat geraniums as a last resort.
Question: Do deer eat Japanese maples?
Answer: Japanese maples are deer resistant meaning that deer generally do not eat them. But if there is no other food available, deer will eat Japanese maples as a last resort.
Question: Will deer eat azaleas?
Answer: Yes! Deer love to eat azaleas and rododendrons. Shade loving shrubs that deer don't like to eat include Mahonia, Skimmia, Daphne, and Bottlebrush Buckeye.
Question: Do deer eat vinca or nicotiana?
Answer: Both vinca and nicotiana are deer resistant.
Question: Do deer eat mums?
Answer: It depends. Some deer herds eat them and other herds stay away from them. If you have a deer problem, spray your mums with deer repellent spray just to be sure.
Question: Do deer eat all irises? They ate my variegated ones but left the others alone. Which irises do deer eat?
Answer: Iris are considered deer resistant. Resistant doesn't mean deer-proof. It just means deer don't usually eat them. As you observed, sometimes deer do eat iris. Obviously they thought that the variegated irises were tastier than the others.
Question: Do deer eat Dipladenia plant?
Answer: "Dipladenia" is the genus name for a large family of flowering plants one of which is the family of Mandevilla vines to which I am assuming that you are referring. Mandevilla vines are considered deer resistant which means that if there are enough other food sources around, deer will not eat them. Bear in mind that when there is nothing else to eat, deer will eat Mandevilla vines and other plants that they normally leave alone.
Question: Do deer eat daylilies?
Answer: Yes, unfortunately deer like daylilies. If you want to grow lilies, try Asiatic lilies. Deer almost never eat them.
Question: Is lavender deer resistant?
Answer: Yes, it is. Deer dislike the strong fragrance of both the flowers and foliage. Most strongly fragrant herbs are deer resistant.
Question: Do deer eat Boston ferns?
Answer: Boston ferns are considered deer resistant which means that if there are enough other food sources around, deer will not eat them. Bear in mind that when there is nothing else to eat, deer will eat Boston ferns and other plants that they normally leave alone.
Question: Do deer like lilacs?
Answer: Lilacs are deer resistant, meaning that deer will not eat them unless there is no other food available.
Question: Will deer eat coleus?
Answer: Yes! Coleus is one of their favorites.
Question: Do deer eat sunflowers?
Answer: Yes, deer do eat sunflowers.
Question: Do deer eat hydrangeas?
Answer: Yes, deer eat hydrangeas. Sometimes they just nibble them, but more often deer will eat large portions of the shrubs.
Question: Do deer eat asiatic lilies?
Answer: Asiatic lilies are deer resistant, which means that they won't eat them unless there is nothing else to eat.
Question: Will deer eat impatiens?
Answer: Yes, impatiens are one of deer's favorite food.
Question: Do deer eat Larkspur?
Answer: Larkspur is considered deer resistant which means that if there are enough other food sources around, deer will not eat them. Bear in mind that when there is nothing else to eat, deer will eat larkspur and other plants that they normally leave alone.
Question: Do deer eat petunias?
Answer: Yes, unfortunately deer love to eat petunias. You might trying growing petunias in hanging baskets that are placed too high for the deer to reach.
Question: Do deer eat Japanese Anemone or Aconitum?
Answer: Both Japanese anemone and aconitum are deer resistant. Be especially careful with the aconitum. It is deer resistant because it is extremely poisonous. All parts of the plants are poisonous. Always handle the plant and the roots while wearing gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
Question: Do deer eat impatiens?
Answer: Yes, deer eat impatiens. Try substituting astilbe, which is deer resistant, if you are looking for colorful shade flowers.
Question: Do deer eat abelia bushes?
Answer: No, they are considered deer resistant which means that most deer won't eat them unless there is nothing else to eat.
Question: Do deer eat Japanese lilies?
Answer: Yes! Lilies of all sorts are among the favorite foods for deer.
Question: Do deer like cannas?
Answer: Cannas are not among their favorite foods. Deer will eat other plants before they eat cannas.
Question: Do deer eat delphinium?
Answer: Delphinium is rarely eaten by deer but if there is nothing else to eat, they will eat delphinium as they are not poisonous like daffodils.
Question: Is white pampas grass deer resistant?
Answer: Most ornamental grasses, including pampas grass, are deer resistant meaning that deer don't eat them unless there is no other food available.
Question: Do deer eat gardenia bushes?
Answer: Gardenias are considered deer resistant which means that if there are enough other food sources around, deer will not eat them. Bear in mind that when there is nothing else to eat, deer will eat gardenias and other plants that they normally leave alone.
Question: Do deer eat chrysanthemums?
Answer: Yes, deer eat chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums are tough, and if you are lucky and the deer only nibble them, your chrysanthemums should grow back.
Question: Do deer eat lavender?
Answer: Deer do not like strongly flavored or strongly scented plants, so they rarely bother lavender. But, when there is nothing else to eat, such as during the winter, deer will eat anything.
Question: Do deer eat potentilla shrubs?
Answer: Potentilla is considered deer resistant which means that deer usually don't eat it. But if there is nothing else to eat, they will eat potentilla.
Question: Will deer eat white pampas grass?
Answer: Most ornamental grasses, including white pampas grass, are deer resistant.This means that they don't usually eat it, but if there is no other food available, they will.
Question: Do deer eat Lady Slippers?
Answer: Yes, they love to eat Lady Slippers, especially because they grow and bloom in the spring when there are very few other food sources available.
Question: Do deer eat cannibas plants?
Answer: Deer love cannabis plants! They eat every part of the plant: leaves, buds, stems. They are a big problem for cannabis growers. Deer don't get high from the plants, they just like the taste.
Question: Do deer eat viburnum?
Answer: Deer occasionally eat viburnum. Only poisonous plants like daffodils are completely deer proof.
Question: Do deer eat dianthus?
Answer: Dianthus are deer resistant which means that deer don't usually eat them. If there is nothing else to eat, then deer will eat dianthus.
Question: Do deer eat Mandevilla?
Answer: Mandevilla is considered deer resistant which means that deer do not usually eat it. However, if there is nothing else to eat, deer will eat Mandevilla.
Question: Do deer eat azaleas?
Answer: Yes, deer eat azaleas.
Question: Will deer eat Iceland poppies?
Answer: Iceland poppies are considered deer resistant. Deer do not like their hairy leaves and stems. However, if there is nothing else to eat, deer will eat Iceland poppies.
Question: Do deer eat Rose of Sharon?
Answer: As noted in my article, the Rose of Sharon is deer resistant meaning that deer don't normally eat them but if there is no other food available, they will eat Rose of Sharon.
Question: There is a deer that eats forsythia bushes around here. Isn’t that weird?
Answer: Forsythia is rated as "deer resistant" which means that usually deer don't eat it, not that deer don't eat it at all. The only plants that deer never eat are poisonous like daffodils and Lily of the Valley. Everything is eaten by deer.
Question: Do deer eat bay trees?
Answer: Bay laurel trees are considered deer resistant which means that deer usually don't eat them. But if there is nothing else to eat, they will eat bay laurels.
Question: Does Vinca like shade?
Answer: Yes, vinca grows best in shade, both partial shade, and full shade. When grown in full sun (6 - 8 hours of sunlight daily), the leaves will get burned.
Question: Do deer eat crepe maples?
Answer: I have never heard of a crepe maple. If you are inquiring about crape myrtles, deer rarely eat them unless there is nothing else to eat.
Question: Deer definitely eat begonias and we have video to prove it. Who said deer don't eat begonias?
Answer: As clearly stated in my answer about begonias, they are deer RESISTANT, meaning that deer don't usually eat them. Begonias are not deer proof. Deer will occasionally eat them. The only plants that are deer proof are plants that are poisonous such as daffodils, lily of the valley and aconitum.
Question: Do you think that deer would eat Weigela?
Answer: Deer seldom bother them unless there is nothing else to eat.
Question: Do dear eat golden chain bushes/trees?
Answer: Golden chain trees are considered deer resistant because the leaves are toxic.
Question: Do deer eat coneflowers?
Answer: It depends. The deer that live in my neighborhood do not eat my coneflowers, but the deer at Rutgers Gardens (a few miles away) where I tend the herb garden, do eat the coneflowers. As noted in my article, different herds of deer eat different plants.
© 2008 Caren White
Caren White (author) on July 30, 2020:
Because different deer herds eat different plants, just purchase one or two plants at a time to see if the deer in your area eat them before you invest in a lot of plants.
Caren White (author) on July 15, 2020:
Deer resistant just means that the deer don't usually eat it, but if there is nothing else to eat, they will eat the "resistant" plants. The only deer proof plants are plants that are poisonous like daffodils or lily of the valley.
Cathie Huber on July 15, 2020:
Surprisingly, deer chewed up two sedum plants, also weigela that were actually labeled "deer resistant". My Annabelle hydrangea is thoroughly chewed, and they've eaten most of the leaves on a struggling dogwood. Chased them off with the hose yesterday!!
Caren White (author) on July 14, 2020:
Different deer herds have different diets. The deer in my town don't eat my echinacea, but in a town a few miles down the road, a different herd of deer loves them.
Bruce S on July 14, 2020:
Dear eat marigold flowers without eating the leaves. Same with snapdragons. They also eat rudbekia and coneflowers when they are young, emerging from the ground in spring. However, they rarely eat the flowers. Thus far, the deer have never touched my calla lilies. Nor will they eat heliobores.
Caren White (author) on May 30, 2019:
Deer usually avoid marigolds because they have a strong odor. But if there is nothing else to eat, they will eat marigolds also.
linda woodard on May 27, 2019:
Do deers eat marigolds? They have eaten all the other flowers I have planted except my marigolds.
Caren White (author) on May 21, 2019:
A hanging basket is an excellent idea. Different herds eat different plants. I was surprised to lose my bee balm to hungry deer. Normally, they don't bother herbs with a strong scent.
Nancy Lynn on May 16, 2019:
Deer ate my non-stop begonias that we planted away from the house last year so this year I only planted tub right next to porch-1 day later most of the blooms and much of the foliage nibbled off. Also all the geranium blossoms except one. Guess I will replant the sad remains in a hanging basket.
Bob on May 07, 2019:
May 6, 2019... Well, a deer just chewed up my prize (and pricey) five year old 4 ft lilac. He ate a dozen of the 15, or so, flower buds and most of the new leaves and growth. It'll probably recover, if he doesn't come back, but I sure lost a year of my favorite shrub.
He also ate some of the young branches on our new White Birch trees and our Rose of Sharons.
All were supposed to be deer safe.
Marlene Bertrand from USA on October 31, 2018:
I live in a mountainous region and the deer are abound. I'm so afraid to plant anything because people say the deer will eat it. This has been a very helpful article. I will try planting some of your suggestions.
Caren White (author) on July 17, 2018:
Those are good points! Thanks for bringing them up.
Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on July 16, 2018:
I think some of the "discrepancies" might be because not all deer are the same. I live in "black tail deer" land, and they seem to prefer different flowers from those in the Midwest, where my friends have white tail deer. And then, my sister lives near the mountains. She has elk to contend with, and their eating habits are again different.
Jluther on May 11, 2012:
Sorry, but deer ate up my new lilac bush. The do avoid the rose of Sharon, though.
RTalloni on June 13, 2011:
Neat read with good tips on discouraging deer from our gardens. Would like to link this hub to mine on hosta if you have no objection. Thanks!
deer heards in my yard on February 11, 2011:
Deer Love Lilacs so that article is wrong there.
moonlake from America on November 17, 2010:
I have deer all over our yard, day and night. Good information.
Cat Coleman on June 28, 2010:
I looked out my windoe this morning and the deer had totally eaten my beautiful geranium, impatian and another flowerin plant I had just purchased and not long ago ate all of my hostas. I put a large boston fern there and they haven't eaten that
CindiSummers on April 28, 2010:
Nice list of deer-resistant plants! I'll have to plant some of these since deer eat my shrubs every year. I just started using Deer Off II, which has remedied the situation. It's also approved for organic use, so I can use it around my organic garden.
Here's the repellent I'm talking about:
berinij on December 05, 2009:
You are incorrect about the Rose of Sharon, my deer shred mine
Kateria Hintz on July 19, 2009:
Hey, Thanks for info. We get deer in bkyard. My service dog died 2 1/2 weeks ago. as family we decided to bury her in bk yard in her favorite spot. We have a big yard. Next day Mom and I went to get bleeding hearts and forget me not. Well we left camping for 2 weeks. Came back bleeding hearts were doing GREAT!! forget me not was eating up.. So we are looking for a flower that means a special meaning and deer will not eat. Thanks for info
C.M. Vanderlinden from Metro Detroit on April 03, 2008:
Great hub, OldRoses. I'm lucky (?) to be in an urban area where I don't have to deal with deer, but they drive several of my relatives nuts. I'll be passing this along to them :-)
Bob Ewing from New Brunswick on April 03, 2008:
Good information, thanks.