If you live and garden in deer habitat—an area that includes much of the continental United States—you may have experienced deer damage in your landscape. Deer damage to ornamentals from eating bark or rubbing their antlers has increased since 2000 as natural habitat shrinks and human development spreads. Deer often cause the most harm to the most expensive ornamental plants: trees. Though no tree species is deer-proof, some are less palatable than others.
Tree Damage from Deer
Deer damage trees in two ways; they nibble on bark, stems, foliage and buds and rub their antlers against tree trunks. While deer eating the tree can lead to defoliation, antler rubbing can remove a full circle of bark from a tree trunk, effectively girdling and killing the tree.
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Deer Damage Prevention
Prevent deer damage through a combination of different methods. Protect all trees, even deer-resistant species, with fencing, netting or trunk guards until they're well-established, as seedlings and tender young trees are especially attractive to deer.
Plant susceptible trees that deer enjoy eating close to homes or other buildings, and surround trees with a ring of less-palatable plants. These include flowering perennials and bulbs such as foxgloves (Digitalis spp.), hellebores (Helleborus spp.), lupines (Lupines spp.), sages (Salvia spp.) and yarrow (Achillea spp.). A grouping of pungently scented and flavored herbs, such as chives (Allium schoenoprasum), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), lavender (Lavendula spp.), oregano (Oreganum spp.) and thyme (Thymus spp.), can deter deer from vulnerable trees.
Vulnerable Deciduous Trees
Certain trees are more susceptible to bark browsing, especially those with tender, moist foliage. Avoid planting these in unfenced areas. Frequently damaged species include crabapples (Malus spp.), European ash (Fraxinus excelsior), flowering cherries (Prunus spp.), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), goldenrain tree (Kuelreutaria paniculata), Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), Norway maple (A. platanoides), pears (Pyrus spp.), redbud (Cercis Canadensis), saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) and willows (Salix spp.).
Vulnerable Evergreen Trees
Deer find certain evergreens especially tasty. These include arborvitae (Thuja occidentialis), Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), hemlock (Tsuga spp.), Foster's holly (Ilex x attenuata hybrids), Leyland cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii), Nellie Stevens holly (Ilex 'Nellie Stevens') and white pine (Pinus strobus).
Deer Resistant Deciduous Trees
Deer tend to avoid trees with pungent-smelling foliage or flowers. They find trees with gray-green, hairy or waxy foliage repellent, and they don't generally browse trees with thick, latex-like sap. Deciduous trees that resist deer damage include bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), bottlebrush (Aesculus parviflora), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), gingko (Ginkgo biloba), hawthorns (Crataegus spp.), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and paper birch (Betula papyrifura).
Deer Resistant Evergreen Trees
Deer don't like trees with thorny bark or stems and pointy or spiny foliage. They also tend to avoid species that have toxic bark, foliage or fruits. Deer-resistant evergreen trees include Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens glauca), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), hollies with thorns (Ilex spp.), live oak (Quercus virginiana), oleander (Nerium oleander), pines (Pinus spp.) and Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).