Deer-resistant plants: Do They Exist?

A bloomed bright purple flower over a small statue in a garden.
Finding a plant that deer will pass up is a challenge. Perennial hibiscus has proven to be successful in sunny spots.

fter a weekend away, Bruce Coleman and his wife returned to their Shadowlawn Avenue home to find the blushing yellow rose buds missing from their yard, annihilated by hungry deer. They had enjoyed the blooms for years until that day.

“They were just cleaned out,” Coleman said with a sigh. “It drives me nuts.  It’s out of control.”

The damage extended to Coleman’s daylilies, but everything else survived, including daffodils, hyacinths and pretty pink and white perennial hellebores. The deer even left Coleman his hostas, which are typically one of their favorites.

Other plants which  remained untouched by the deer include a groundcover of bishop’s weed, yuccas, peonies, black-eyed Susans, daisies and Knock Out roses.

That’s one of the things that makes dealing with deer so difficult. Every herd eats differently and young deer will give anything a try.

Jake Gramm, Fieldbrook Drive, runs Gramm Outdoor Contracting and has consulted with most of his Mt. Lebanon clients about planting with the deer in mind. “More and more we get specific calls,” said Gramm, “‘Can you rip out my current landscape and put in something that’s deer resistant?’ We can try, there are options, but it’s never foolproof.”

Gramm has lived in his Mt. Lebanon home a little over a year and on this day, he was working hard on a waterfall and pond install. Even though it’s a long way from completion, the deer stop for a drink as they meander through his property.

His plan includes Winter Gem boxwoods and some variegated varieties of the shrub, too. “I’ve rarely seen deer nibble on boxwood,” he said.

A physical barrier is a great way to keep the deer at bay. In Gramm’s own landscape, a beautyberry is surrounded by a cage. He installed it to keep bucks from rubbing during the rut. Besides cages, in a pinch, Gramm will use four-inch plastic drainpipe cut vertically so that it can be easily slipped around the trunk of a tree. Deer are not interested in rubbing the corrugated plastic pipe.

Gramm plants perennial salvia and Russian sage, which both have worked well providing color in the landscape without deer damage. Annual salvias could also serve, as they are from the sage family as well, and most deer will walk right by them.

Jake Gramm leaning on a shovel in his yard where he has been building landscaping.
Jake Gramm relies on physical barriers to deer-proof his yard. Cages and plastic drainpipes keep plants off the menu.

He’ll add protection to trees and shrubs early in September and leave the barriers in place until spring. It would be safe to remove them around in mid-winter, but it’s easier to get them off when work begins at properties as the season begins.

Gramm is also concentrating on deer-resistant conifers, like white pine, blue atlas cedar, a beautiful variegated Honey Made holly, a tricolor beech and Japanese black pine.

The black pine is quite an interesting choice as it grows irregularly and asymmetrically, without a central leader. The tree has a unique shape that makes a bold statement in the landscape. It’s a tough tree that produces lots of pretty cones, eventually reaching 50 feet or taller at maturity.

Bruce Coleman walking through his yard next to a landscaped pond.
Bruce Coleman surveys the damage and plans for the next round in the deer wars.

Over the 20 years Coleman has lived here, he’s seen deer pressure vary from season to season.

“Fortunately, our back is fenced in so we’re a little bit protected there,” he said. He’s seen two huge bucks jump the fence though and even surprised a pregnant doe looking for a place to give birth to a fawn in the backyard.

The ferns, hostas and hydrangeas do well there as the deer don’t make the leap very often. The calming sound of running water in a small pond filled with fish echoes through the property.

One thing that drives people crazy about deer is their browsing habit, as illustrated by the two containers of impatiens on Gramm’s front doorstep at the end of last season. “They ate all the way around one of them and the other one was untouched and gorgeous,” he said with a chuckle.

“Beauty on one side and on the other side, just sticks. I almost wish they ate both of them. There’s no rhyme or reason. It’s pretty frustrating and there’s no way to avoid it, especially in Mt. Lebanon.”

Returning to his front yard, Coleman looks at one lone tulip, which has sent a bud up to flower. It’s one of the favorite foods for deer. “I’ll see if it survives.”


Doug’s 10 favorite deer resistant plants

This is a list of varieties the deer don’t bother in my garden. Hopefully the same will be true in your landscape. Young deer in particular are known to nibble on plants in an attempt to decide if it’s a good choice for a meal. There are no 100 percent deer proof plants, but I’ve had luck with these.

Corydalis lutea 

Corydalis lutea sends up pretty yellow flowers in April which persist through early winter. The plant is happy in dry shade or part sun and creates a nice colony over a few seasons by throwing seeds.



Perennial and annual salvia 

Take a look at May Night as a perennial. I love Wendy’s Wish for containers, but your local nursery has a multitude of great choices, and salvia  also attract hummingbirds.




Daffodils are planted as bulbs in the fall and are the harbinger of spring. Once daffodil season is in full swing, there’s no turning back for gardeners. I’m a sucker for Division 4, the double blooms. “Tahiti” is a favorite.




This spring and summer blooming shrub grows unprotected in my garden and the deer walk right by, usually feasting on something I’ve worked hard on growing. Look for Spirea billardii, which blooms with long purple flowers and is maintenance free.



Lily of the valley 

Nothing compares to the sweet, old-fashioned fragrance of lily of the valley. Many gardeners consider it a bully as it rambles wherever it pleases, but for me, I say let it run.




This annual thrives in full sun and is indestructible. Great for beds or containers, this plant is known for its luminescent yellow or red flowers, and the deer are not interested. “Hot Blooded” is one of my favorites.




The perfect choice for new gardeners. There are climbing/vining varieties and also types that remain prostrate, staying close to the ground.  Ironically, the flowers are edible, but offer a spicy finish that deters the deer.



Perennial hibiscus

These late bloomers can produce flowers the size of dinner plates. Another low-maintenance sun lover which will handle part sun and still bloom.



Japanese pieris 

This spring blooming evergreen shrub will be filled with fragrant, white bell-shaped flowers. It’s a slow grower that can reach 20 feet or higher eventually. The plant also has beautiful exfoliating bark for winter interest, too.


Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’ 

Kerria is an underused shrub in the shade garden. It can be overwhelming, reaching eight feet high and wide, but in the right spot, this plant is a star, filled with double orange flowers in late spring.


Photos by Doug Oster