Top 10 Perennials Less Palatable to Deer

As anyone in the Pittsburgh region knows, there is a wildlife presence within our city. One of the largest and most numerous species around is the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). White-tailed deer prefer to occupy hardwood forests, because they o􀃠er cover and browse for them throughout the year. Deer are classified as browsers because they primarily eat grasses and forbs. As many gardeners know, they are also incredibly opportunistic and will consume wide-varieties of plants other than grasses. There is a substantial amount of information available for identifying plants that are preferred by deer for browsing.

Some of the most important sources of food for deer are crops and mast. Agricultural crops make up a large portion of white-tailed deer’s diets in the summer and fall. Again, many gardeners have observed this preference. Mast, the other source of high-quality forage, comes in the form of blackberries (Rubus spp.), cherries (Prunus spp.), grapes (Vitis sp.), blueberries (Vaccinium coryumbosum), American beech (Fagus americana), persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), apples (Malus sp.), American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), and oaks (Quercus sp.). Oaks, specifically, provide acorns which often make up over 75% of a white-tailed deer’s annual diet. Many of these species occur in the forests around Pittsburgh. In the winter, species like maples, dogwood, birch, ash, holly, honeysuckle, apple, bayberry, black gum, black cherry, oak, sumac, blackberry, sassafras, greenbrier, goldenrod, basswood, eastern hemlock, blueberry, and grape provide nutritious food. As deer are native to the region, they generally prefer to eat native plants.


White-tailed deer also tend to reside around the edge of forests, where food and cover are both present. These edges are where sunlight intensity is higher than the interior of the forests, and many species of plants exhibit higher rates of growth. These fast growing plants o􀃠er tender young shoots for deer to consume, and often at a rate that is quite substantial. When present in very high densities, as is often observed in this region of southwestern Pennsylvania, deer can alter plant communities by consuming all of the palatable species. In turn, unpalatable species often become more established. These unpalatable species are often non-native, and tend to be very invasive. Heavy deer presence has drastically affected the forests of the Pittsburgh region by consuming much of the would be regenerating native plants on the forest floor. Deer often out-compete other herbivores for food availability. High levels of browse also reduce habitat availability for other animals.

This post provides a list of some species of native plants that are more deterrent against deer than others. Even when faced with the sometimes inevitable loss of your precious garden plants, the importance of including native plants in your landscape cannot be understated. All of the following plants provide not just aesthetic function in your landscape, but they provide an essential ecosystem function by being available for native insects, and birds. By providing ample sources of food for insects that are particular about what they eat, your landscape functions more as a part of the surrounding landscape. These plants will help you get started with a hardy native landscape if you’re new to them, or can spruce up an already existing garden.


1) Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

This late-spring and early summer flower is pretty and persists for quite a while in shady, moist sites. It does well massed and if you find it in the woods it often occurs this way. The latin “Aquilegia” means “eagle” and is in reference to the shape of the flowers. Pollinated by bees and hummingbirds, this plant is welcome in any garden where you’d imagine eagles to soar under the canopy.


2) Milkweeds (Asclepias sp.)

Any member of the milkweeds is a great addition to your property as they are hosts to the monarch (Danaus plexippus) and a number of other Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Its leaves contain secondary metabolites that make it unpalatable to many other species of animals, including deer. The flowers persist for quite a while and they are incredibly hardy. The importance of these plants persisting in our urban and suburban landscape cannot be understated. Without milkweed, the very specialized monarch would not be able to survive.


3) Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis)

Blue false indigo can be a very rewarding plant, but it takes time to grow to its full potential. Tall blue spikes of flowers resemble lupine and develop in early summer. It is incredibly hardy and drought resistant. It does well in part-shade to full-sun and on sites that are moist and drain well. The plant will fill out quickly in the spring, and provides beautiful blue flowers that used to be used for indigo dyes. It is also host to the specialist, wild indigo duskywing (Erynnis babtisiae). This plant is an excellent choice for many places on your property.


4) Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)

This small, perennial wildflower is established readily and does well massed. It grows to be around 12″ tall and has beautiful lavender colored flowers. It does best in the shade and in moist, well-drained soils. These plants are resistant to deer as well as rabbits and other furry critters. Be sure to obtain native varieties from local sources and not European varieties, as the non-native species do not host native insects.


5) Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia)

This deer-resistant perennial has very unique flowers that droop from a single spike and resemble small hearts. It does great in filtered shade around the edges of your garden, especially in contrast to other plants like wild ginger (Asarum candanese). The blooms persist well into the summer and are sure to add great color to any site. The fern-like leaves of the fringed variety will not die back like other Dicentra species. This plant is a great choice for your woods or around your house.


6) Tickseed (Coreopsis sp.)

Members of this family of plants are incredibly deer-resistant. They are also quite hardy and drought tolerant. The blooms last for some time and there are a number of varieties available that can complement any gardener’s taste. These plants establish easily, especially when in well-drained soils and once established can do well in full sun.


7) Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)

This shade-dwelling plant does especially well in full or part shade. It is a great ground-cover plant that has a very unique purple flower that occurs close to the ground. It makes for a fun time getting underneath the leaves looking for the late spring blossom that is pollinated by flies. It prefers soils that are rich in hummus which builds up when leaf litter from surrounding plants decompose on the ground. Planting these around and underneath deciduous trees and shrubs best emulates their naturally occurring habitat.


8) Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

This very unique, carnivorous plant has a single green and maroon flower with a hooded spathe (the pulpit) and spadix (Jack) inside. It does best in rich woodland soils, in the shade. The flower resembles that of a preacher (jack) at his pulpit. The dioecious plant will bear either male or female flowers that are visited by fungus gnats that are attracted to a subtle fungal odor. When the gnats enter into the flower, they lay their eggs on what they believed is fungus. When hatched, they may become covered in pollen if inside a male plant. They escape through a small hole in the base of the flower and hopefully find their way into a female flower where they can then pollinate it. When the gnats die from becoming trapped inside the plant, they will decompose and provide a source of nitrogen to the plant. This plant is bound to be the center of any of your garden parties!


9) Rudbeckia (Coneflowers and black-eyed susans)

The members of the Rudbeckia genus are incredibly hardy and often very drought resistant. They have very identifiable blossoms that are host to a number of moths and butterflies like the pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis), and the wavy-lined emerald (Synchlora aerata). This is a great example of plants that are incredibly functional to the ecosystem, deer-resistant and aesthetically pleasing in the garden. The blooms are long-lived, tall, and make for great cut flowers, too. They do great in moist, well-drained, rich soils in the full sun.


10) Wild bergamot / bee balm (Monarda Fistulosa)

This native to most of North America is a great wildflower that does well along borders or in meadow plantings. It has a very attractive lavender blossom that is generally unpalatable to most mammalian critters. However, it is host to an incredible number of other insects including moths like the hermit sphinx (Sphinx eremitus), gray marvel (Agriopodes teratophora), long-tongued bees, hummingbirds, and seed bugs like Ortholomus scolopax. Historically, it has been held in high regard for its medicinal qualities. With such a wide variety of benefits, it makes sense to include the beautiful and sought after plant in your garden!


In Summary

The previous list was only a glimpse into many of the native wildflowers that provide not just aesthetic qualities, but are somewhat resistant to the often inevitable browse by the white-tailed deer. Though resistant, these plants are not necessarily deer-proof. It is important to remember that native animals have native host plants that they consume. With the listed plants all being native, they are inherently at risk to being consumed by native herbivores like deer. However, it is critical that we continue to plant these species of plants in our gardens because they are host not just to the occasional deer, but to a multitude of other creatures that are essential to the health of our local and global ecosystems. So when considering planting the “deer proof” varieties of plants found at many large nurseries, remember that the reason they are deer proof is because they are non-native. As such, they will not host many of the important insects that we so desire to find in and around our gardens.

Enjoy planting, and always be mindful