Sunday, February 20, 2011

Deer Country 11: Spring Perennial Flowers

When I surveyed Howard County Master Gardeners about perennial flowers that deer don’t eat, they recommended 27 plants—too many for one posting here on Ancient Gardener Blog. I’m going to divide the list into four parts for weekly postings, dividing the plants roughly according to when they bloom. Sometimes that makes the division easy because a plant blooms only for a short time, and sometimes I’ll just have to arbitrarily place a plant on the list knowing that it blooms for many weeks or several times a summer. This week’s posting covers six plants that bloom in the spring.

Drum roll—the all-time winner of the “Deer Resistant Flower Trophy” is the daffodil (Narcissus spp.). It appears on every list of deer-resistant plants. When I tallied their votes, Howard County Master Gardeners put it at the top of their list. When we first moved to Meadow Glenn, I began my “deer-resistant plant” education by noticing that hoof prints of deer went around the daffodils I had planted and ended where the deer had devoured nearby tulips. Bulb catalogs offer scores and hundreds of varieties of daffodils in a wide range of colors and heights. Choosing varieties that bloom at different times can extend overall bloom time for several weeks. They grow best in full sun but can take a little shade.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.) is an early-spring beauty. My six-year specimen spreads more than two feet in each direction, even though I’ve moved it twice to give it more room and shade. Yes, it’s a true shade plant that thrives in the shadow of the east side of your house. A plus: after a few years, it will drop seeds, and you can share young plants with your gardening friends. A minus: After it blooms, it dies back rapidly and usually is “history” by mid-June.

Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). This plant makes a great ground cover for shady locations, which is how I use it on the eastern side of our house. Is there any springtime fragrance sweeter than that of lily-of-the-valley? When I was a wee lad in New Jersey, I picked two or three lily-of-the-valley flowers and a leaf or two, tied them together with white string, and presented this rustic, somewhat wilted corsage to my mom. She pinned it on her best dress and wore my gift to church. I hope your mom was like that too.

Peony (Paeonia spp.) loves the sun and rewards us every spring with its huge, fragrant blooms that last about a week. Every year in May my dad picked a bunch of peonies, and then we took our annual drive to a nearby cemetery where Dad arranged the red and white flowers in a quart jar of water by a gravestone. The names on the stone: Warren and Angela Nixon, Dad’s parents. Dad often stood by the tombstone, just looking. Later in life, I learned his parents died in the Spanish Flu epidemic two days apart in October 1918. Both were 29 years old, and they left six children. My dad was only three. When he stood there quietly in the cemetery, I now wonder, was he trying to recall a faint childhood memory of his folks? Sometimes I wonder if the love he showered on my brother and me compensated for the love the H1N1 virus robbed him of during his childhood.

Moss phlox (Phlox subulata). This makes a great ground cover for sunny spots in Deer Country. It hugs the ground and gradually expands into a thick green mat covered with pink or white flowers in the spring. Yes, deer don’t eat it, but they do rip off a stem or two from time to time, especially in winter when food is scarce—and promptly spit it out.

Vivid purple blooms of Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) are a springtime garden brightener. I see new colors creeping into current catalogs. I suspect deer don’t eat this iris because the leaves are so tough. When I cut them back with an electric clipper in the spring, they are difficult to cut. Without top incisors, deer don’t like tough-to-browse food. It’s too much work for the nutrition gained, I suppose.

Remember that there are no guarantees that deer in your neighborhood won’t eat perennials listed here. There is no “deer-proof” plant. Browsing depends on many things, including number of deer, availability of other foods, and preferences of individual deer. For example, lily-of-the-valley appears on this week’s list, and even though it was recommended by Master Gardeners as highly resistant, I’ve had two gardeners tell me recently that deer in their neighborhoods eat it.

If you’re serious about finding perennials that deer won’t eat, remember to check the lists in the brochure and the books I recommended in “Deer Country 3” and in lists available online. Research your favorite candidates and give them a try.


  1. YEH --they are all my favorite !! Linda

  2. Bob, I loved the interesting sidebar stories you added, those bits of personal history. Now, yesterday I discovered an entire pansy bed next to my house was devoured to the ground, and suspect deer, though I found no tracks among the grass. Maybe it was a really small deer?

  3. Thank you, Gladys. Deer browsed our pansies to the ground when we first moved here. Yes, other critters will take a bite of pansies, but when your whole bed was eaten--you should bet on the deer! Where are the hoof prints, though? I usually find them if I look hard enough, but soil type and size (weight) of the deer make a big difference in what you'll find.