Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Deer Country: What Causes October Madness?

Fawns browsing moss phlox

What causes deer to do strange things in October—such as eating plants they’ve absolutely ignored the other 11 months of the year?

Another gardener recently commented, “What’s with the deer?  They ignore certain plants all year and then clean me out—in October.”

Here are four examples of deer eating plants in October that they generally don’t browse.

One October afternoon I looked out our front window and saw two fawns grazing in our bed of moss phlox.  That phlox has been growing there for at least 10 years with hardly a nibble.  Yes, occasionally in mid-winter, when there’s not much green to eat, a deer has grabbed a mouthful—and usually spit it out on the nearby sidewalk.  But this year the two fawns apparently decided moss phlox is the greatest new food since apple pie.

Fawn sampling goldenrod
A fawn in October also did what no other deer has done—sampled our goldenrod, a much listed "deer-resistant plant."

Deer haven’t nibbled a leaf of the lilac shrub by our driveway for at least 10 years—until this October, when they defoliated the shrub below the browse line—which is about five feet above ground.  Lilac, you know if you live in Deer Country, appears on just about every list of “deer-resistant plants.” 

Browsed lilac

Finally, every book and every magazine article on deer management states that deer never ever eat daffodils.  Ha!  I watched—on October 24, for the record—a fawn browsing on “toxic” daffodil leaves that had broken through to announce that there will be a Spring 2012.  Apparently the fawn was redefining “toxic.”

What do you think is “with” deer in October?  Are they bored with the same-old, same-old food they’ve been eating all summer and want to try something new and exciting?  Are the fawns that eat forbidden fruit—well, resistant plants—deer delinquents deliberately showing their mothers that they indeed can eat “bad” food?

Sampling daffodils

I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.  I just know strange things happen to plants in our garden when October Madness strikes and our deer decide that our resistant plants suddenly are irresistible.


  1. Momma always said it was unclean livin' what brought it on.

  2. Thanks for the reminder - I'm going outside right now to deer-out my front yard.

  3. Ha, I like the "deer delinquent" theory. I don't have huge deer pressure normally, but recently some of the passing herd apparently walked right past beds of daylily, hosta and dahlia, and munched on my "deer resistant" fig tree. Go "fig"ure.

  4. The theory I've always ascribed to is that animals eat plants that give them the nutrients they need. Maybe there was some nutrient in the phlox and lilac that they were getting from other plants that died with the first frost

  5. Kent, I think your "search of nutrients" is a good one. Three commentators on my FB page chalked October Madness to surging hormones, so I've coined a new phrase, DHS or Deer Hormonal Syndrome. Until scientists know the actual cause, let's all scratch our heads and smile as we ponder "nutrients" or "DHS."