The other evening, just after dusk, as I was walking from computer to kitchen; I happened to glance out of our front windows at the patio. Gazing back was a beautiful doe, interrupted from perusing the buffet of our potted garden by my passing. Her calm gaze told me she had snacked on our Violas before, and had every intention of finishing this meal, too.
Now, my friends know the extraordinary lengths my partner and I have gone to keep the deer out of our garden. Deterring the deer has consumed our efforts, and resources, and become something of an ongoing conversation among our extended family.
These newly emerging Heuchera leaves are growing in to replace the many mature leaves recently eaten by hungry does.
Not yet willing to give up gardening or move elsewhere, I’ve devoted the last two gardening years to planting mostly “deer resistant” plants. I’ve studied and compiled lists of plants the deer are “supposed” to leave alone.
We’ve surrounded vulnerable plants with smelly herbs, trialed a half dozen “deer repellents,” made the fences higher, chased the deer who have found their way in, and experimented with lighting. My “deer resistant” Oakleaf Hydrangeas ended up nibbled to sticks. The Heuchera and Violas grown in pots at the foundation to the house have been decapitated. And, we still find hoof prints and deer scat to prove the deer’s efforts at getting in and out, on both sides of our fencing.
Caladiums, ferns and Begonias remain my favorite plants for shade.
So what is a “deer resistant” plant? There are plenty of things I perhaps don’t enjoy eating, but will in a bind. Same with any creature bent on self-preservation. And the overpopulation of deer in Virginia this year is at legendary levels.
We’re seeing stories about them on our news. Too many Bambis, not enough hunting, and intense pressure on the environment have left our deer especially hungry this winter. Local drivers are encountering deer with deadly consequences here in James City County. Rutting season is now underway, and deer are running across our roads more than ever.
That is why, as I consider plant choices for the coming season, “deer resistant” is no longer good enough.
Have you ever considered how members of the Plant Kingdom defend themselves? Some have thorns. Some have tough bark. And many are poisonous.
The topic of poisonous plants is not polite conversation.
We may hear whispers of Belladonna and Oleander, but most of us have left the topic strictly alone. Until now.
Mountain Laurel, a small evergreen tree, blooms each May. Since every part of it is poisonous, deer leave it alone.
In my reading about plants that are “deer resistant,” more and more I’ve noticed notes about some of those plants also being- poisonous. Sometimes just the seed is poisonous, or just the leaves.
Does this look poisonous to you? The daffodils and Columbine are both highly poisonous. The tiny periwinkle blue flowers and evergreen leaves of Vinca shine among the leaves. Although not listed as poisonous, Vinca contains over 50 alkaloids and is never nibbled by the deer.
We all know that both potatoes and tomatoes were considered poisonous until fairly recently in our history. Their leaves are highly poisonous, as are the leaves of the poinsettia plant. Potatoes which have turned green must be peeled due to the poisonous substances in their skin.
Sometimes the poison has a mild effect, sometimes a deadly one. One bean from the Castor plant (Ricinus communis) is said to be sufficient to kill a cow. Some plants may have alkaloids which cause burning of the lips and tongue, or which cause nausea without being fatal.
Daffodils and Columbine survive in our garden. The pink Phlox to the left didn’t survive the season. It is too tasty…
So, as I work on plans for the spring garden, I’m also compiling a list of poisonous ornamental plants which will grow in our region. But not out of a malevolent desire to inflict harm on our beautiful and gentle woodland creatures, mind you.
Some of my best friends are Bambi lovers, and I hope to keep their friendship. In fact, some of those friends and I have commiserated over their grazed flower beds. Rather, I want the plants in our garden to actually have a chance at survival.
Elephant Ear, Colocasia, contains poisonous compounds which irritate the lips, mouth, and throat. The Coleus and sweet potato vine behind it are, sadly, tasty.
Whereas birds will nibble a seed here and there, and bees will suck nectar and collect pollen; deer graze a plant to oblivion. Deer will eat every scrap of edible material, and walk away looking for more. They have no sense of conservation or sharing.
They have no awareness of the cost of the plant they just grazed, or our anticipation at watching it actually live, and perhaps grow. Worse, many of the plants destroyed by deer would have benefited other creatures in the forest, had they been allowed to grow.
Every part of Hellebores are poisonous from root to flower.
And so it’s come to this. Your gentle Woodland Gnome is compiling a list of poisonous plants in the hopes of making our garden a shade less appetizing and alluring.
Our hope is that the deer are canny enough to leave these lethal buds and twigs strictly alone. This list I’m preparing is not exhaustive. It’s culled from ornamental plants suited to our climate. And there are probably a few plants you can add, that I’ve overlooked.
Elephant Ears, Colocasia, and Canna lilies are never grazed by deer.
If you know of others, or can make suggestions for your own region, please be kind enough to leave a note in the comments. At least these plants will stand a chance to survive in our forest garden this year.
Ligustrum leaves are poisonous to deer, although the berries sustain birds each winter.
Poisonous ornamental shrubs:
Angel’s Trumpet: Brugmansia and Datura
European Holly Ilex aquifolium
Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia
Some species of Oak are poisonous
Artemesia, also called Wormwood.
Poisonous Perennials and Bulbs
Wolfsbane, Monkshood Aconitum
Bleeding Heart Dicentra cucullaria
Elephant’s Ear Colocasia
Lily of the Valley Convallaria majalis
Sauromatum venosum, Voodoo Lily
The Passionflower vine is poisonous, and strictly ignored by deer, although its fruit are edible.
Castor Bean Ricinus communis
Tomato leaves (though the deer have grazed my tomatoes)
Passion Flower Passiflora Caerulea (leaves)
Many of these plants, like daffodils and Mountain Laurel, already grow in our garden, and have for decades. They pose no problems for pets or people.
I was frankly surprised to learn some of these are poisonous. But these are the plants left growing, untouched, as their less lethal neighbors suddenly are eaten. Handled carefully, and with awareness, all of these plants can be used to create a beautiful garden, even in areas, like ours, with ever growing herds of deer.
All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2015
Deer Resistant Plant List
Keeping Deer Out of the Garden