Taking an environmentally sensitive approach to pest management


Missouri Environment & Garden


Michele Warmund
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9632

Spring Deer Feeding on Shrubs and Trees

Michele Warmund
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9632

Published: March 4, 2020

deer eating leaves off a tree

With spring just around the corner, plants will soon be budding out. While gardeners welcome spring, other unwelcome "guests" typically arrive, including deer. During this time, deer feed on grass, plant buds and shoots, and fleshy fruit. Does need plenty of food in early spring to produce their fawns. American arborvitae, azalea, rhododendron, European mountain ash, chestnut, pecan, and all types of fruit trees and small fruit plants are often damaged by browsing deer.

Unfortunately, once deer find a safe haven rich in palatable plants, they will visit the landscape regularly if not immediately deterred. Shrubs and small trees are particularly susceptible to damage, since they are within an easy reach of deer browsing. As deer feed on tender plant shoots, the growing points are eliminated, leaving ragged or torn terminal stems. This feeding alters the natural growth form of the plant and causes new branching at the shoot tips. While this "natural pruning" may improve the aesthetic quality of plants with open, straggly growth habits, it can also permanently distort the shape of a prized ornamental tree or shrub.

Planting deer-resistant plants is a good way to deter deer depredation in the home landscape. Although deer will eat almost any plant when food is scarce, there are some that are less palatable and are usually avoided. A listing of herbaceous ornamentals that are rarely damaged by deer feeding can be found at: https://ipm.missouri.edu/MEG/2009/7/Critter-Control-in-the-Garden/. Shrubs and trees that are typically unpalatable and are recommended for planting in Missouri are listed in the table below. Several of these are thorn-bearing plants, which may not be suitable in all landscapes.

In established landscapes, deer protection is challenging. Temporary solutions include placing wire cages around plants and securing them so deer can't push them aside to feed. Moving, visual devices (flashy streamers, aluminum foil or plates, whirligigs) discourage deer, but are soon ineffective as deer find that there is no real danger from these objects.

Inexpensive repellents include suspending open-weave bags of human hair, or bars of strongly scented soap from branches of trees and shrubs. However, these repellents must be replaced frequently and provide inconsistent results. Alternatively, an egg solution (20% eggs: 80% water) can be sprayed on plants. Place this mixture in a container in a sunny spot until the eggs become putrid. The addition of rosemary or peppermint oil may help reduce the stench and will facilitate the application the solution. Hot sauce, containing capsaicin, as well as other additives, can also be sprayed on plants. Commercial products, such as Deer Away, Hinder, Ropel, etc., can be purchased. Generally, these repellents last about two weeks, but reapplication is needed after rainfall or heavy dew. Do not apply these repellents on plants for human consumption.

Deer netting can also exclude deer, but is not usually aesthetically-pleasing for the home landscape. Tall fencing is expensive, but a more permanent deer deterrent. To be most effective, upright fencing should be eight feet-tall. Six-foot-tall fences provide more limited protection, but when built at an outward angle, deer have more difficulty jumping high over a distance. The presence of a persistent, barking dog that enjoys the thrill of a chase, in addition to a six-foot-tall fence, may also be a family-friendly way of limiting deer damage in your backyard.

Deer not only injure plants in the spring, but also cause extensive damage from October to December. During this rutting period, bucks rub their antlers on tree trunks to remove the velvet from antlers. As they attempt to remove the velvet, bucks can dislodge newly-planted trees, causing exposed roots to desiccate and die. Deer rubbing can also cause deep scarring into the plant tissues beneath the lower branches on the trunk, which permanently weakens the tree.

Shrubs and Trees Seldom Severely (S) or Rarely (R) Damaged By Deer Feeding in Missouri.

Common name Botanical name Typical Damage
American holly Illex opaca S
Beautybush Kolkwitzia amabilis S
Blue holly Illex x meserveae S
Carolina allspice Calycanthus floridus S
Common boxwood Buxus sempervirens R
Common lilac Syringa vulgaris S
Crape myrtle Lagerstoemia indica S
Golden Privet Ligustrum 'Vicaryi' S
Inkberry Illex glabra S
Japanese barberry Berberis thunbergii R
Japanese flowering quince Chaenomeles japonica S
Junipers Juniperus spp. R
Littleleaf boxwood Buxus microphylla S
Mugo pine Pinus mugo S
Oregon grapeholly Mahonia aquifolium R
Scarlet firethorn Pyracantha coccinea S
Spicebush Lindera benzoin S
St. John's wort Hypericum prolificum S
Austrian Pine Pinus nigra S
Bald-cypress Taxodium distichum S
Colorado blue spruce Picea pungens S
Dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides S
Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii S
Eastern red cedar Juniperus virginiana S
Golden rain tree Koelreuteria paniculata S
Honeylocust Gleditsia tricanthos S
Norway spruce Picea abies S
Red maple Acer rubrum S
River birch Betula nigra R
Saucer magnolia Magnolia x soulangiana S
Sugar maple Acer saccharum S
Sourwood Oxydendrum arboretum S

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REVISED: March 5, 2020