California Native Plant
Deer Resistance

It’s an eternal question:  What California native plants are deer resistant?

There’s no consistency.  First person says “Plant X is deer resistant.”  Next person says, “The deer in my yard love the stuff.”

The best answer is probably “There’s no such thing as a universally deer resistant plant.”

Why might that be?

Association: Deer and local native plants have co-existed here in California for thousands of years.  It’s natural for the deer to eat the plants.  In undisturbed conditions, it keeps the ecosystem in balance.

Preferences: A doe develops taste preferences for certain plants over her lifetime.  She teaches her fawns to eat what she does. The plants available vary from place to place.  The deer move about.  Some stories about deer-resistant plants may evolve from a deer avoiding something it doesn’t recognize as food.  Or something it personally dislikes.

History: Deer have bad memories.  They try something, don’t like it, and spit it out.  Next day, same thing. Your lovely plant may be reduced to a shadow of its former self, even dead, by the time the deer has learned it doesn’t like the taste.

Nutritional content: A third theory is that deer require a 5% minimum protein level to make it worthwhile for them to eat something.  Protein levels vary from place to place and with the season of the year. Flowers and new foliage have high nutritional content and lower chemical defenses. Deer may find your plantings more attractive in spring, less so in summer or fall.

Opportunity: Do you live in the flatlands, or next to a creek or open space? The number of deer sampling your garden will vary depending on this. Similarly, if your neighbors drench their prize roses and you conserve water, your garden may be less attractive to deer.

Natural variation: Even within a species known for its chemical defenses (i.e., deer resistance), individuals vary, even in the natural world.  Add to that the variation of the garden experience, such as irrigation, shading, mulching and fertilizing, and the range of tastiness will vary even more, even within one species of plant.

The solution

Protect your vulnerable plants from deer by putting a wire cage around them until they’re large enough to fend for themselves.  It’s not in the deer’s long term interest to kill the plant that’s feeding it.

If you’re willing to risk some losses and you really want the plant, go ahead and see what happens. If your local deer don’t like it, you’re home free.

The final word:  Nothing is foolproof.

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