It hardly seems fair. While honey bees suffer from Colony Collapse Disorder, white-tailed deer have a rampant case of Multiply-and-Munch-Down-Our-Gardens-Syndrome.
Adding insult to injury, they eat the most expensive plants first. Apparently, the fancier the hosta, the more delicious it is. This notion may just be apocryphal, but I have a hunch about why it might also be true. More about that later.
Wondering why they liked hostas—known in some circles as “deer spinach”--I once tasted a piece of a young leaf. I thought, “succulent, but not savory” and spit it out. But it confirmed another hunch; deer generally like mild-flavored plants and don’t like those with strong flavors or tough textures.
In fact, their tastes reminded me of myself as a 5-year-old: while my sisters were enjoying peanut butter and jelly on toast, I craved white bread with butter. I’ve outgrown that narrow palate, but the deer won’t--unless they are extremely hungry. Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), for instance are widely considered deer-resistant because of their irritating sap. But I’ve heard that deer pressure on parts of Long Island has become so great that your Hellebores may no longer be safe until herds decline.
Photo: Lenten rose (hellebore) blooming in winter.
In NC we have a stable population of about a million deer; probably more than lived here before the colonial era. But we have many more people here too. And with the people come neighborhoods and roads that slice into deer territory, replacing native trees and shrubs with succulent roses and vegetables.
Of the 176,000 deer killed in NC in 2007, most were taken by conventional hunters on private land, but more were killed by people with vehicles (10%) than by bow hunters (7%), hunters with muskets (8%) or hunters on public lands (4%). In 2008, eleven people in NC died when their vehicles struck a deer. So damage to cars and gardens isn’t the only price we pay for an out-of-balance population or sprawl.
Duke University, here in my hometown of Durham, NC, owns a 7000 acre forest used for research and public recreation. They recently allowed a hunting club to take hundreds of deer from the forest for the second year in a row. Surprisingly, there were no protests on behalf of the deer. In NC we've also reintroduced red wolves in the mountains and the coastal plain with some hope that they'll help curb the deer population.
These efforts are small consolation for my clients with deer problems, however. So I’ve summarized in sidebars below my recommendations on three deer-resistance strategies available to most gardeners: Repellents, Fences and Plant Choices. Like all garden practices, the key is finding the mix that favors your budget, temperament, time, and taste.
So why do deer seem to eat our most expensive plants first?
Think long stemmed roses. They have lost much of their fragrance and disease resistance as they’ve been bred to be the perfect cutting flower. As we breed plants for visual impact we may also be accidentally losing qualities that made them less tempting for deer. And generally the more generations between a cultivar and it’s original species, the more expensive it is—and perhaps more vulnerable.
So just as breeders have turned their attention to breeding disease-free landscape roses, perhaps one day we’ll have a flashy hosta that deer will dismiss. One that tastes like Texas Pete perhaps?
....more about deer resistant gardens later this week....tune in.