Leaves vs. Antlers – Round 1

Most of us enjoy watching a somewhat timid deer with budding antlers still in velvet foraging on the forest edge. As night approaches and hunger calls, that once-cautious deer approaches our home looking for flowery morsels of pansy, myrtle, and, heaven forbid, lettuce, cabbage, and carrots!

Such Innocence!

                My brother-in-law, Jim, has his camera tripodded on the back porch with binoculars handy hoping to glimpse a fawn, a doe, or eight-point buck. One recent morning he awoke to find all his newly planted crepe myrtles missing every leaf. Surely not that tawny-colored fawn with the large brown eyes could cause such devastation. She was guilty along with her mother and her whole family of aunts and uncles – antlers or not.  “So”, his question began, “what can I plant that the deer will not eat?” Pondering a bit and acting like the gardening sage that I wasn’t, I came up with a brilliant response that got me out of the deep abyss into which I had been pushed. “Absolutely nothing! A hungry deer will eat anything and everything.”

                I quickly realized that my answer was unsatisfactory and certainly didn’t address the dilemma of wanting to watch deer as a hobby and not watch them destroy your yard. I decided to research the subject using the resources of the University of Georgia Extension, several nursery sites, and my own experience to give a more palatable (no pun intended) response to Jim’s serious question.


There are at least a dozen herbaceous and woody bushes that will either deter deer browsing or at least, make them choose more natural offerings rather than ornamentals in your yard. If you are growing vegetables then build a 10-foot tall chain link fence complete with an iron gate, floodlights, and several intimidating 20 mm cannon on each corner. For most of us, that is not feasible or desirable. Let’s confine our research to ornamentals, and let the vegetable farmers continue fighting the never-ending guerrilla warfare of Bibb vs. Antler.

                My favorite deer resisting ornamental is Pieris japonica known commonly as Andromeda, Mountain Firebush, or Fetterbush. In the wild, Pieris varieties are found in Japan, Taiwan, and China and there are several species native to Cuba and the eastern US. It is somewhat ironic that the native species are difficult to grow in cultivated gardens and close to 100% of nursery stock originated in the mountains of eastern Asia. The Japanese variety is a beautiful plant that I have successfully grown for over ten years and in my new home, I planted two Pieris japonica a year ago and they are doing great. The leaves are simple, evergreen, and lance-shaped. The attraction to the ornamental landscape is that new Pieris leaves are red – not just any red – bright red! The whorl of new growth looks like a brilliant red blossom from afar and lasts a week as the leaves emerge and gradually change to a rich green as they join the rest of the plant’s community.

                Yes, it also blooms! It is now the end of June and both my Pieris bushes are getting ready for their second bloom of the year. The first was in early March. I should have a third bloom later this year and each one is a panicle of white little bells resembling blueberry blossoms or those of Lily-of-the-Valley. Some gardeners call Pieris the Lily-of-the-Valley bush for the bloom similarity, but it is not related to the popular Spring-time perennial. When new red leaves mix with white blossoms we get a bonus of sorts but usually, sprigs of blossoms will stall new leaf growth.

Leafy Reds!

                What about deer? Antlers and Pieris do not mix. A deer will have to be desperate to munch on a Ferrerbush as the leaves contain a mild toxin that will cause indigestion and general malaise not only to deer but to rabbits, Japanese Beetles, and people. Even though I have raised Pieris for years, neither children, grandchildren, or pets have munched on flowers or leaves and if they did so, the acrid taste would deter further culinary adventures.

White Lily-of-the-Valley similar blooms. Some varieties have pinkish or red-tinged blossoms.

It does have a pest or two but I have never seen them. The Ingrained Moth in its caterpillar stage feeds on Peris but the moth is confined to Europe and Asia. If you plant them near azaleas and they are a decent companion to azaleas and rhododendrons,  there is a possibility of minor attacks of the Azalea Lace Bug adult which in azaleas feeds on the underside of the leaf. I have never seen any such infestation in Georgia but in more northern climates, the Lace Bug is a common azalea pest.

The Azalea Lace Bug!

Azalea damage.

Where do we stand with the Pieris as deer resistant and still pleasant addition to the ornamental landscape?

                Deer abhor it – gardeners love it! Plant it in well-drained, acid soil with decent mulch and light fertilizer. Partial sun is OK and shade is best. Plant a grouping with plants at least four foot apart. Mine have stayed under five feet at maturity but under perfect conditions, they can reportedly grow up to ten feet but I have never seen these giants. Good companion plants could be azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas, viburnum, and hydrangea.

Best of all worlds! New red leaf, blossoms, and no deer at the same time!

                Next time – another deer resistant plant – the Arrowhead Viburnum.

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