Deer-Resistant Shade Plants
Gardening in the shade where deer are plentiful can be a challenging situation. But there are plants that thrive in the shade that aren't tempting to hungry deer. Although no plant can be considered completely deer-resistant, here's a list of shade dwellers that most deer avoid. Plus, we've added some fun facts about deer that might help you understand them better.
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Sometimes it seems that deer will eat about anything, but Pieris japonica is an exception. This shade-loving broadleaf evergreen has thick green foliage and drooping clusters of pink, white, or rose flowers in the spring that deer don’t even nibble on. Pieris grows 9 to 12 feet high and prefers slightly moist, acidic soil. Occasionally called andromeda, Pieris does best in partial shade. Use it in a foundation planting or shrub border. Zones 5-8
Deer Fact: Male deer often mark their territory by rubbing their antlers on the bark of trees. This is called a “buck rub” and can do a lot damage to young trees in the landscape. Be sure to protect new plantings with a wire barrier.
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Blooming in late summer and fall, toad lily, Tricyrtis hirta, makes a welcome addition to a shady flower border. Growing 2 to 3 feet tall, toad lily develops small lavender blooms sprinkled with dark purple spots. This Japanese native perennial prefers rich, well-drained soil that holds moisture even during times of drought. Zones 4-8
Deer Fact: Deer love to browse or rub their antlers on young trees. To protect new plantings, surround them with a mini fence or barrier that’s at least 5 feet tall and secured to the ground with firm stakes.
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Commonly called lungwort, pulmonaria is as attractive as it is deer resistant. A reliable perennial, pulmonaria comes in a number of varieties, all of which have pretty spotted or variegated foliage with sprays of pink or blue flowers in the spring. Pulmonaria makes a great companion for deer-resistant, spring-flowering bulbs such as narcissus and scilla. This easy-care plant flourishes in slightly moist, well-drained soil and grows 6 to 12 inches tall. Zones 5-8
Deer Fact: White-tailed deer antlers are one of the fastest-growing tissues known to man. They begin to grow in the spring and fall off in the early winter.
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Brighten the dark corners of your landscape with the feathery finery of astilbe. This reliable perennial bears blooms in red, coral, white, lavender, and cream, and grows 1 to 3 feet tall, depending on variety. The plants also have fern-like leaves that provide color and interest even when the plants are not in bloom. Astilbe thrives in shady spots with rich, well-drained soil. Zones 4-9
Deer Fact: White-tailed deer tend to avoid plants with fuzzy or hairy leaves. They will also snub plants with thick, leathery foliage.
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Bursting into bloom in the early spring, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, is a reliable native wildflower that thrives in moist, fertile, shady locations. The plants may take a few years to get established but eventually form broad colonies. Jack-in-the-pulpit produces an unmistakable hooded green or purple flower often followed by red berries later in the season. The plants usually go dormant in mid-summer. Zones 4-9
Deer Fact: Deer avoid Jack-in-the-pulpit because the plants contain a poisonous substance, calcium oxalate.
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The pretty, starlike flowers of columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, are held aloft on wiry stems that dance gracefully every time the wind blows. An easy-care native wildflower, columbine comes in a host of colors, shapes, and sizes that thrive in any partially shaded location. Individual columbine plants can be short-lived, but they self-sow freely and will eventually form large drifts of color. Zones 3-8
Deer Fact: In the wild, a white-tailed deer can live up to 11 years; it remains in the same territory unless its habitat is destroyed.
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Trusses of pink flowers held above shiny, heart-shape leaves make bergenia a top pick for your shade garden. Commonly called pigsqueak because the leaves make a squealing sound when rubbed between your thumb and finger, bergenia grows 12 to 18 inches tall and wide. The plants prefer rich, moist soil and will remain evergreen in the southern part of their range. Zones 3-8
Deer Fact: White-tailed deer prefer to live in large groups or herds dominated by a mature female.
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Japanese Painted Fern
If deer are a problem in your neighborhood, try Japanese painted fern, Athyrium niponicum pictum. This handsome shade dweller grows 12 to 18 inches tall with grayish-green fronds overlaid with silver and maroon highlights. Over time, Japanese painted fern will naturalize an area, forming dense clumps. Japanese painted fern grows best in rich, slightly moist, well-drained soil. Zones 3-8
Deer Fact: An adult white-tailed deer requires 5 to 7 pounds of food a day. That adds up quickly in the average garden.
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Grown as much for its huge dark green leaves as it is for its spikes of bright yellow flowers, ligularia thrives in shady, moist locations. This hardy perennial can grow 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, so give it plenty of room to stretch out. Ligularia will suffer when rainfall is scarce so be sure to mulch the plants to maintain soil moisture and water deeply once a week. Use ligularia along a shady stream bank, in a rain garden, or at the edge of a pond. Zones 3-8
Deer Fact: White-tailed deer are crepuscular. That means they are most active in your garden at twilight but will also forage at dawn.
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Often called Siberian bugloss, Brunnera macrophylla, is prized for its colorful, heart-shape leaves and its sky blue spring flowers. The plants grow 12 to 18 inches tall and are generally ignored by hungry deer. Brunnera likes rich, slightly moist soil and will eventually form solid clumps that spread by creeping rhizomes and self seeding. It does not like to dry out, so use a thick mulch and water during times of drought. Zones 3-8
Deer Fact: Deer have a four-chambered stomach to help them digest the toughest plants. Like cows, deer are ruminants, which cough up their food later on and chew it.
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The thick compound leaves of mahonia are what keep deer from feeding on this beautiful, shade-loving shrub. Occasionally called Oregon grape holly, Mahonia aquifolium grows 3 to 6 feet tall and develops trusses of yellow flowers in the spring, followed by blue-black berries in the late summer. Mahonia prefers rich, slightly moist, acidic soil where it will slowly spread by runners to form thick colonies of color. Zones 5-8
Deer Fact: White-tailed deer can run up to 40 miles an hour and jump fences up to 9 feet tall.
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There aren’t a lot of shrubs that bloom in the shade, but skimmia will reward you with fragrant white flowers in the spring followed by clusters of red fruits on female plants in the fall. Skimmia is a broadleaf evergreen that grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, making it a good candidate for a shaded foundation or hedge. Both male and female plants are required for berry production. The berries will also attract songbirds to your shade border. Skimmia grows best in rich, slightly moist, well-drained soil. Zones 6-8
Deer Fact: A deer can turn its ears in almost any direction without moving its head, allowing it to locate potential danger from any direction.
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As fragrant as it is colorful, daphne is great choice for part-shade locations where deer are a problem. Growing just 2 to 3 feet tall, this handsome deciduous shrub develops clusters of whitish-pink flowers in the early spring followed by small red berries in the fall. Use daphne in the perennial border or as a foundation plant along the north side of your house. Zones 5-8
Deer Fact: In the 1930s white-tailed deer populations were down to about 300,000 animals, but today it’s estimated there are about 30 million deer in the United States. That’s why gardeners are seeing more and more deer munching on their landscapes.
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One of the best deer-resistant flowering shrubs for shady landscapes is bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, which grows 8 to 12 feet tall and is covered in spikes of nectar-rich white flowers in the early summer that will attract hordes of butterflies to your garden. The flowers eventually produce shiny inedible nuts that will add interest to the fall landscape. Bottlebrush buckeye prefers rich, slightly moist soil. Zones 4-8
Deer Fact: Mother deer do not stay with their newborn fawns, but remain nearby to nurse them 4 to 6 times a day. The fawns remain bedded down to avoid discovery until they are old enough to keep up with the doe.
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As a rule, deer avoid plants with thick, shiny leaves because they don’t taste very good. That’s why pachysandra makes such a great groundcover in deer country. This vigorous, shade-loving plant grows 6 to 12 inches tall and spreads quickly by underground runners, eventually forming an impenetrable carpet of dark green or variegated foliage. As a bonus, pachysandra also produces tiny white flowers in the early spring. It prefers rich, slightly moist soil and retains its color all year long. Zones 5-9
Deer Fact: Hanging bars of soap, spreading human hair, or even spraying deer repellent will not prevent hungry deer from using your garden as a buffet. The only fully effective way to keep deer at bay is with a tall, electric fence.
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One of the best deer-resistant groundcovers for shady landscapes is epimedium, occasionally called barrenwort or Bishop’s Hat. It will slowly carpet your landscape with its colorful heart-shape foliage and flowers. Epimedium grows 12 to 18 inches tall and easily tolerates dry or rocky soil. Different varieties offer patterned leaves and flowers in lavender, yellow, or white. Zones 5-8
Deer Fact: Nutrition, age, and genetics determine the size and number of points on a buck’s antlers. Only male deer grow antlers.
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Often called foam flower, tiarella is a great addition to any shade border. This little charmer grows 8 to 12 inches tall, producing masses of pink or white flowers in late spring; its leaves turn reddish bronze in the fall. This hardy native makes a great groundcover when grown in rich, slightly moist soil. Use tiarella in a shaded border or woodland setting. Zones 4-9
Deer Fact: Scientists believe that deer are colorblind so they will dine on your favorite flowers no matter the color.
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Borne on sturdy yet graceful stems, the snow-white flowers of windflower, Anemone sylvestris, look like they're dancing whenever there's a light breeze. This extra-easy perennial grows 12 to 18 inches tall and produces quantities of white daisy-like flowers in April and May. Windflower spreads slowly, eventually forming broad mats of pretty foliage and flowers. It's tolerant of heavy shade and prefers a well-drained, slightly moist soil. Zones 4-8
Deer Fact: During cold winter weather, deer often migrate to areas populated with conifers such as spruce, fir, and pine where they can forage and be protected from the elements.