Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

I love finding mountain laurel growing in large, lovely masses in the wild.  Its creamy pink flowers glow softly in the forest.  Wild mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, sometimes covers the undeveloped banks of creeks and rivers in Eastern Virginia.  It grows as an understory shrub in our oak and pine forests. 

These evergreen, wild looking shrubs, almost small trees, simply blend into the fabric of the woods through much of the year before bursting into bloom in late April and early May, suddenly elegant and beautiful.  Wild mountain laurel usually has white or pink flowers.  Some cultivars in the nursery trade have been selected for darker flowers of purple, red or maroon.  Ours are probably wild ones, since most of the flowers are white.

Early American botanists first recorded mountain laurel, then called “Spoonwood,” in 1624.  Carl Linnaeus named the shrub for Peter Kalm, a Swede, who explored eastern North America in search of new and useful plants in 1747-51.  Mountain laurel, one of the most ornamental native plants growing along the east coast of North America, was collected by Kalm to export to gardeners in Europe. 

Mountain laurel grows from Maine to Florida in Zones 5-9.  It even grows east along the Gulf Coast from western Florida to eastern Louisiana. But it isn’t generally found near the coast south of Virginia.  It prefers the coolness of the mountains, and its southern range moves ever further west, at elevation, following the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains.

Mountain laurel, part of the Ericacea family of plants, is related more closely to blueberries than to bay laurel, which is native to Europe.  It prefers moist, acidic soil and requires at least partial shade.  Although the shrubs flower more abundantly in bright shade than deep, Kalmia don’t like growing in full sun where summers grow hot.  These plants are best mulched, and fertilized, with shredded leaves, pine straw or pine bark mulch.

Read More on Our Forest Garden

Mountain Laurel, April 2017

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore….

Lantana attracts butterflies and birds. Deer never touch it.

When I began gardening here in a forested community in the autumn of 2009, my earliest efforts resulted in unexpected frustration as deer, rabbits, moles and voles ate much of what I planted. I still remember planting a flat of perennial Phlox plants and finding them gone the following morning, nothing left but holes where they had been planted only hours before.

Even plants that I expected to be ‘deer proof,’ like a new hedge of hybrid blue holly shrubs, died within months from the stress or repeated grazing. That frustration set me on a path to re-learn how to garden in such a ‘wildlife friendly’ environment.

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is an heirloom Narcissus, dating to at least 1916. It grows here with lambs ears and Siberian squill, all unattractive to deer and rabbits.

Over a decade later, I’m still learning. But I’ve discovered a growing list of plants that the deer in our area leave strictly alone; plants that can be planted with confidence that they’ll be left alone for the gardener to enjoy. But ‘deer proof’ isn’t the only quality I’m looking for in plants. I also want beautiful plants that are reasonably easy to grow, persistent and that will support other wildlife. I want functional plants that serve a variety of purposes within the novel ecosystem of our community.

I began writing about these special plants for a local garden newsletter in May of 2021. The original set of nine articles has been republished here, with articles about additional plants on my ‘deer proof’ planting list added from time to time. I hope these articles will prove helpful to others who are trying to enjoy a garden where deer roam freely.

Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives.  That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar.  Allow me to share another of my favorites….

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel May 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scarlet Buckeye April 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore:  Narcissus March 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Ajuga February 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mahonia January 2022

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Hellebores December 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Italian Arum November 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Evergreen Ferns October 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Rosemary September 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Scented Geraniums August 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Verbena July 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Agastache June 2021

Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Calla Lily May 2021

Six on Saturday: Wildlife Friendly Perennials

Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta, grows in full to partial sun.  It spreads a bit more each year.  There are other species of Rudbeckia equally attractive to pollinators that also produce tasty seeds for the songbirds.  Deer rarely touch a leaf, unless there is a severe drought and they need moisture.


So many of us want to attract birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators to our gardens.  We want beautiful flowers and glowing, healthy foliage; but we don’t want to attract deer to feast in our yards.


Monarda fistulosa loves full sun and spreads on many types of soil. Flower color varies from lavender to white.  Any species of Monarda, which is a perennial herb, feeds pollinators and is distasteful to deer.  Purple coneflower, Echinacea, is another native plant that blooms for much of the summer to attract butterflies, and delights goldfinches once it sets seed.  Once established, both are very drought tolerant.


As I chat with fellow gardeners, I hear the same concerns over and again.  We want to be good stewards and support wildlife.  But we want to plant things the deer will leave alone!  No one wants to use expensive sprays and granules to protect their plants, and neither do we want to come out to admire it all and find it munched!


Hellebores keep right on blooming through winter storms and freezing nights from January until May.  Every part of the plant is poisonous and grazers never touch them.  Pollinators find much needed pollen and nectar when little else is in bloom.


As undeveloped lands shrink, all of the animals that once lived there look for new places to live and raise their young.  And that means that they learn to live among us in our neighborhoods and in the few remaining ‘wild’ places behind and between the developed parcels.

We have the added challenge in our neighborhood of backing up against protected wetlands and a National Park.  The deer and other wild things move freely from park to neighborhood, looking for a safe place to live where their needs can be met.


Yellow flag Iris spreads in full to partial sun in moist soil.  It produces a lot of nectar, though it blooms for only a few weeks each spring.  All Iris support pollinators and are distasteful to grazers.  Plant a variety of different types of Iris to support pollinators over a longer period of time.


I sometimes feel conflicted planting to attract some wildlife, while trying to exclude other species.  But as we all eventually learn, deer don’t share; they consume.   Deer will eat a plant to the point of killing it, then go looking for more.

I’ve spent many years searching for those particular bird and pollinator friendly plants that deer and other grazers won’t eat.  These are some of my favorites in our Zone 7b garden.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a few good picks that come to mind.

In general,  deer avoid herbs because of their essential oils, and avoid plants with tough, leathery leaves that feel unpleasant in their mouths.  Plants with poisonous leaves are a sure bet; and there are plenty that may be poisonous to eat, but perfectly safe for us to handle.


A Silver Spotted Skipper enjoys Verbena bonariensis in our garden.  There are many species of  perennial Verbena, all of which attract pollinators and all of which are ignored by grazers. 


These plants are easy to grow and easy to find, relatively inexpensive to buy, and forgiving of novice gardeners.  I hope they offer a bit of hope to those gardening, as we do, where the deer roam free and generations of rabbits raise their young in the side yard.


Agastache, anise hyssop, is an herb related to mint.  Like other herbs, it has essential oils that make it distasteful to grazers.  Agastache often attracts even more pollinators than Lantana, which is saying a lot!  Its seeds feed birds once the flowers fade.


Woodland Gnome 2019

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator.

Hellebores: Winter’s Flowers


Even before the first snowdrop emerges, we enjoy abundant winter flowers in our garden.  Perennial Hellebores fill our pots, beds and borders with their sturdy evergreen leaves year round.

Buds emerge in late December or early January, and their flowers begin to open during that long stretch of cold when little else can bloom.  Often called “Christmas rose” or “Lenten rose,”  these tough, beautiful flowers continue blooming through late spring.

I’ve just re-edited my 2014 post, Hidden Jewels: Hellebores, with additional information and updated photos.  I hope you will enjoy it!


H. argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’ February 9, 2017


Woodland Gnome  2018
*     *     *
Hidden Jewels: Hellebores
The Beauty of Hellebores
Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever’
Why I Love Those Plants of Ill Repute
Plan Now For Winter Flowers

Blossom XXIV: Amaryllis in Summer


Like seeing an old friend, in an unexpected place, our winter Amaryllis bravely blooms again in the midst of early summer perennials.  How often do we assume that the stately Amaryllis we buy for a holiday gift or decoration is simply a disposable house plant?

As their pale leaves stretch and flop in January, most of would gladly chuck the whole thing once its blooms have finished.  But a gardener’s patience is usually rewarded, and so it is for that Amaryllis bulb that we care for through the winter.


Bulbs always have some months of awkward growth when their leaves fortify the bulb for the next season’s bloom.  You probably are wondering what to do with the floppy foliage of spring’s daffodils right about now, just as we’re still letting it rest in annoying disarray.

An Amaryllis is no different. If you allow its leaves to grow for several months, and then force it to go dormant; it will reward you with even more blooms the following year.  And like other bulbs, Amaryllis form offsets as they mature.  Read that, “Free bulbs!”


Amaryllis bulbs, freshly dug up from the garden last December.  After allowing these to rest for several weeks, I potted these up to bring them back into growth.


Amaryllis, more properly called  Hippeastrum reginae, come to us from the southern hemisphere.  That is one reason they are so popular during our winter; they still believe it is early summer, and time to bloom!  And however huge and exotic an Amaryllis may appear, they are very easy to grow.   All they require is water, light, and space to grow.

Once the weather warms enough and frosts have finished in mid-spring, simply plant the Amaryllis into good garden soil in full or partial sun.  Leave any remaining leaves intact.  They will soon be replaced with sturdier, brighter leaves anyway.


Hippeastrum ‘Tres Chic’


Planting depth depends on your plan.  If you plan to bring your Amaryllis back inside in August, cut away the foliage, and let it rest dormant until late autumn; go ahead and plant it so the leaves emerge right at soil level.  When potted, most Amaryllis are planted shallow.  So dig a hole large enough to accept the root mass, and plant it only slightly deeper than it was in its pot.

If you live in Zone 7 or south, chances are you may be able to leave your Amaryllis outside permanently.  Check the zone of your bulb to make sure it is hardy to at least Zone 8.  Then plant the bulb a few inches deeper than it was in its pot, and mulch with another inch or so of whatever mulch you use.

Like with so many bulbs, you will likely forget where you planted the Amaryllis once it goes dormant.  And then one early summer day, “Surprise!”  Your Amaryllis will sprout thick, sturdy stalks topped with large buds, and you will be thrilled with its beautiful blooms.


H. ‘Tres Chic’ in bud in late April


Plant in rich, well drained soil.  Bulbs don’t like to sit in wet, soupy soil; especially when they are dormant.  I like to add a little Espoma Bulb Tone, dug into the surrounding soil, when I plant the Amaryllis out in a perennial bed.  Use a little when you pot up a new Amaryllis, too.

Since Amaryllis are poisonous, they won’t be bothered by grazing rabbits or deer.  Finally, a lily we can grow that won’t become ‘deer candy!’    Once their blooms have finished, cut back the bloom stalk, and let the leaves grow on.  They won’t require much space, and will provide structural foliage during the rest of the season for whatever else you have going on in that perennial bed.

I find an Amaryllis’s summer blooms to be even more spectacular than its winter show.  We may appreciate them more in winter, when most flowers have finished for the year.  But little else grab’s one’s attention quite like the elegant trumpet shaped blossoms of an Amaryllis.

Woodland Gnome 2017

Worth the Wait


Helleborus argutifolius ‘Snow Fever”


“It is said there are flowers that bloom

only once in a hundred years.

Why should there not be some

that bloom once in a thousand,

in ten thousand years?

Perhaps we never know about them

simply because this “once in a thousand years”

has come today.”


Yevgeny Zamyatin




The Helleborus ‘Snow Fever,’ which we planted earlier this winter, have come into bloom.  We’ve been watching their progress daily.  We’ve marveled at the delicate new growth emerging from the center of its lovely white splattered leaves, wondering at the flowers yet to emerge.

Here is the first of the opening blossoms.  Its new leaves, behind the buds, are creamy white with the most delicate edging of  red.  This unusually elegant Helleborus has been worth the wait.




Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017

Waiting For Snowdrops

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 045

I remember golden yellow daffodils blooming in mid-December of 2012 near the James River.  They looked so unnatural nodding their cheerful yellow heads right as Christmas lights were shining and we were deeply into holiday preparations.  They brought with them a horrible foreboding that our seasons were dangerously out of whack.

This December brought a few late roses and early Forsythia blossoms, but blessedly no daffodils. Those of us who choose to live in the temperate areas of the planet appreciate each of our seasons.  When they are out of whack, we feel a bit cheated to have missed out on the special joys and beauties of that time of year.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 001

No, wintery cold weather came early in 2013, and has settled into our Virginia landscape much later into the spring than we’ve come to expect.  Our bare winter landscape is browned out.  Even some evergreen leaves, normally vibrantly green throughout the winter, have been frozen into dull brownness.

Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, is the earliest bulb of spring.  Even their name explains their special place in the late winter garden.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 036

The genus, Galanthus, is derived from the Greek for “milk,” gala,” and “flower,” anthos.  All Galanthus are creamy white, so “milk flower” is an appropriate and descriptive genus name.  The species name, nivalis, means “of the snow.”  Named by Carl Linnaeus in 1735, the snowdrop is called, “milk flower of the snow.”  “Of the snow” refers to both its pristine white appearance, and also to the fact that snowdrops often bloom so early that snow is still on the ground.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 041

Snowdrops are our earliest bulb in the garden this year.  Not even Crocus, another early bloomer, or Muscari have opened yet.  Although I found Crocus last week on a sunny bank along the roadside in our community, none have appeared yet in our own garden.

Perhaps because our own winter has been so long and unusually cold, we treasure every jewel like bloom.  Each one is greeted with appreciation and happiness because the clear message each holds is the promise that spring has begun unfolding for us.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 033

Even during this warm stretch of four days we’ve enjoyed, the local weather forecasters have kept up their warnings of more snow on the way.  We’ll drop back to freezing tonight, and we expect an inch of snow on Wednesday, followed by more freezing snow and sleet by the weekend.  By Wednesday morning our own snowdrops will bravely bloom above a white carpet of fresh snow.

Galanthus nivalis are native to Northern Europe.  They are well adapted to grow and bloom in the freezing weather of late winter and early spring in zones 3-7.  Williamsburg, Virginia, is on the southern border of their range here in the United States.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 003

Perhaps because they are the first bulb of spring, they’ve been hybridized and planted widely throughout Europe and the British Isles.  In fact, they are so popular in Britain, Scotland, Wales and  Northern Ireland that many of us assume that to be their native habitat.

Although widely naturalized in beautiful drifts in woodlands and meadows, snowdrops, or “February fairmaids” as they are often called, probably first crossed the Channel with the Romans.  Popularized in the early Sixteenth Century, they were part of the nursery trade between Europe, The British Isles, and the Colonies in North America.  Snowdrops are so treasured in the British Isles that many avid gardeners take tours in February to see them in bloom, alongside Hellebores and early shrubs.

February 16 spring flowers 037

Snowdrops, like many bulbs, are absolutely simple to grow.  Although it’s always wise to prepare the ground for anything, tiny snowdrop bulbs can be set into tiny drills in the ground, about 2 inches deep, covered, and left alone.  They are quite beautiful naturalized into lawn, under trees and along ponds and creeks; planted in  beds and borders or pots; or even grown in tiny pots to bring in as houseplants during late winter.

Planted in autumn, they need several weeks of cold weather before they’ll begin to grow.  I bought several dozen bulbs this year in December and planted them “second knuckle deep” in outdoor planters where I am growing Violas, Heucheras, ferns, and shrubs.  When I switch out the winter/spring plants for summer ones, I’ll lift the Galanthus bulbs and “plant them in the green” elsewhere in the garden.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 039

All bulbs need several weeks after bloom time for their leaves to create sugars for next year’s growth.  It is important to leave their leaves freely growing until they die back naturally in early summer.  Doing this prepares the bulb for next spring’s show, and also allows the bulb to create offsets, or new baby bulbs around its base.  When you dig bulbs out of their pots in May you’ll notice several tiny bulbs surrounding the one originally planted the previous fall.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 028

This is how bulbs spread, and eventually naturalize an area.  Many Galanthus, won’t produce viable seeds.  They are hybrids.  The only way to increase your bulb display year to year is to dig and divide them.  “Planting in the green” means one carefully lifts the bulb, leaving all of the leaves intact, and then gently replants the bulbs at the same depth where they will permanently grow.  Water the clump in well, and allow the foliage to continue growing until it naturally dies back.  No fertilizer is needed, but if helps any plant to give it a drink of dilute fish emulsion or sea weed emulsion from time to time.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 042

Galanthus really shine in a natural setting.  They are beautiful growing at the base of trees, along paths, creeks and ponds.  They are individually so tiny, at only about 5″ tall, it is best to plant a great mass of them for a big impact.  Plant them where you’ll pass them frequently and pause to enjoy their delicate beauty up close.

You might also want to mark them so you won’t forget where they are and accidentally dig them up later in the season.  Ignored by deer, they grow well in a wide range of soils, in part sun to partial shade.  They prefer moist soil when in active growth, but winter soils are generally moist in our area.

February 24, 2014 snowdrops 003

So in our Forest Garden we are waiting and watching for snowdrops to uncurl their petals as our first tangible harbinger of the change of seasons.  Even though winter is returning to our garden tonight, we know its days are numbered, and our snowdrops promise that spring has already begun.

February 23, 2014 spring bulbs 006

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

“The snowdrop and primrose our woodlands adorn,
and violets bathe in the wet o’ the morn.”

Robert Burns

Our Forest Garden- The Journey Continues

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