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Deer-Resistant, Flowering Native Shrubs

Annoy deer with something pretty that's not their cup of shrub.
Annoy deer with something pretty that’s not their cup of shrub.

Unfortunately, no plant is deer proof. Deer are browsers, taking a few bites here and there as they move along. Young deer especially will try out absolutely anything once. And with development of their habitat narrowing menu choices, deer today may be even less picky than in the past. Azaleas used to be considered an excellent deer-resistant shrub. Today they are more commonly put in the “deer candy” category with hungry visitors known to polish off every bud.

Still want azaleas? Don’t be scared off. For greater deer resistance, go with a deciduous rather than an evergreen variety. Try types such as Delaware Valley, Fireball, Double Delight, Golden Light, or those recommended by your favorite nursery. You can also apply repellant, and even if hit your bush almost certainly will survive, just a little barer for the season.

But if you’re feeling adventurous, there are a world of options out there that are less attractive to your typical deer. Strongly scented plants generally do not appeal, nor do those with thick fuzzy or leathery leaves. Thorns can be a deterrent (though deer love to eat some types of roses regardless), and bitter tastes, often an indicator of poison, will keep deer moving on too.

Here are four shrubs that are deer resistant and have showy flowers, foliage, and berries to brighten any yard. All four are also native to Maryland. This status means they’ve evolved with our local deer and should be able to handle their browsing ways. They are also adapted to local climate and soil and will attract local wildlife and pollinators.

For a longer list of native Maryland and some other deer-resistant plants, visit the website of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. An even longer list of landscape plants organized by their level of resistance to deer is maintained by Rutgers University, which conducted extensive research on the topic.

Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)

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Arrowwood, an upright multi-stem shrub, prefers well-drained soil and full to partial sun. It will grow 6 to 15 feet tall in favorable conditions. Its creamy white flowers bloom in late spring, followed by 1/2 inch berries that turn blue-black and ripen in fall. The shiny green foliage also turns red or red-purple in the fall. Berries are edible but with more seed than flesh; they attract a variety of birds, which also use the bush for cover and nesting. Several species of butterflies and moths use arrowwood to feed their caterpillars, including the lovely Spring Azure Butterfly.

Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)

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Part of the rose family, the chokeberry has bright red berries in the fall that can  be used for jams and jellies. Its foliage also turns bright red in the fall, and the bark has an attractive red-brown color. It can grow from 6 to 12 feet tall and prefers full to partial sun and wet soil, though it can tolerate dry soil once established, and is quite hardy. Many birds eat the berries, especially in winter.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

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The leaves and twigs of the spicebush have a citrus smell. Part of the laurel family, this bush grows to usually less than 6 feet, occasionally reaching 12 feet. It can tolerate dry to wet soil and part to full sun, preferring moist woodland areas. Green-yellow flowers grow in clusters in early spring, providing an early nectar source for pollinators. Plants are male and female; if at least one male bush is planted the females will bear bright red berries beginning in early fall. The berries, which have an allspice taste, were traditionally used in seasonings and teas. A number of butterflies will use the spicebush to feed and shelter their caterpillars, including the “spicebush swallowtail.”

Sweetpepper Bush (Clethra alnifolia)

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The sweetpepper bush most commonly attains a height of 3 to 6 feet though it can grow as tall as 12 feet in ideal conditions. It likes wet soil with healthy drainage and can grow in sun, part-sun, or shade. Slow to leaf out in the spring, its flowers then grow to upright, fragrant white or pink spikes that bloom in July and August when few other plants are in flower. Fruits look like brown capsules, and are eaten by birds and small mammals; foliage changes to yellow or orange in the fall. The bush is popular with bees and butterflies and generally easy to grow attracting few pests or diseases.


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