Thursday, March 8, 2012


            This deer-resistant plant list is growing like Topsy. (You’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, right? Dreadful book, and a slog of a read, demonstrating that the history of publishers choosing politics over good writing goes ’way back.)

But I digress. Yesterday I stumbled onto a whole new category of plants Bambi avoids, silver-foliaged plants. I’m learning that deer-ravaged landscapes are more a failure of the gardener’s imagination than anything else. So today we showcase bulbs, silver-foliaged plants, and succulents.

Regular readers already know what a huge fan of all plants bulbous I am. Here is a sampling of genera that I know from personal experience will fend off unwanted deer attention.

AMARYLLIS (Hippeastrum—pronounced hip-pee-A-strum—and intergeneric hybrids such as Amarcrinum) Everyone’s favorite bulb for forcing at Christmas, amaryllis is also surprisingly hardy outside in my neighborhood. The Hippeastrum pictured here is ‘Jaguar,’ a pass-along from a friend that I kept alive for years as a houseplant (if you can believe that).

Hippeastrum 'Jaguar'
Amarcrinum 'Dorothy Hannibal'

CRINUM (Crinum species and intergeneric hybrids like Crinodonna) Just to give you an idea of their staying power: Frank Galloway, reclusive local plantsman extraordinaire, has been collecting these low-maintenance lily relatives from around abandoned homesteads for years. Any plant that thrives without human intervention is my kind of plant.

x Crinodonna
Crinum x powellii


DAFFODILS (Narcissus spp and cultivars) Daffodils are poisonous in all their parts, as I’ve warned many times before. They probably wouldn’t kill you, but I’m guessing you’d be pretty miserable before you managed to expel them from your system. Deer have enough trouble surviving without making themselves sick, so they give daffs a wide berth.

GRAPE HYACINTH (Muscari spp.) Deer don’t graze the clumps of M. armeniacum, M. aucheri, M. latifolium and M. comosum we’ve planted in St. James. Maybe it’s the grass-like foliage that discourages them.

M. aucheri  (with Tulipa sylvestris)
M. armeniacum

IRIS—The bulbous iris I refer to here include the miniature, early-blooming I. histriodes, I. reticulata and I. cristata; and the larger and later Dutch iris, I. hollandia. We’ll get to the bearded, Siberian, Japanese, and Louisiana ones under the rubric of perennials.
I. hollandia

I. reticulata


MONTBRETIA (Crocosmia x crocosmifolia) These late-summer, hot-colored bloomers look like a cross between lilies and species gladiolas. But they must not taste very good.

A. schubertii

ORNAMENTAL ONIONS (Allium spp.) With flowers ranging in size from golf-ball (A. moly) to beach-ball (A. schubertii) and in colors from pink, purple and burgundy through yellow, blue and white, these nasty-tasting beauties give Bambi the brush-off.

Zephyranthes candida
RAIN LILIES (Habranthus & Zephyranthes spp.) Crocus-like—only larger—flowers in white, yellow or pink bloom above mounds of bright green grassy foliage after a rain or deep watering, allegedly: in my yard, the appearance of the flowers seem less predictable that that. Not that it matters.

SPECIES GLADIOLI (Gladiolus communis var. byzantina) This cheerfully prolific mid-spring bloomer is not as flashy as its gigantic hybrid cousins, but you can leave it in the ground and it’s not as likely to have its buds nipped off.

 SPIDER LILIES (Lycoris spp.) Neither the winter-appearing foliage nor the leafless late-summer blooms of the so-called “naked lady” lilies tempt deer palates. The two species pictured here are L. radiata and L. sprengeri ‘Tie Dye.’

L. radiata
L. sprengeri 'Tie Dye'

 STAR FLOWER (Ipheion uniflorum) Low-growing mounds of mid-green foliage producing star-shaped blooms in all shades of blue (not purple) beginning in late February and continuing into May have naturalized all over my yard.

      Silver is a useful color in the garden. Like white, it can either dominate or recede, depending on its placement and companions. Most silvers are native to dry environments, and tend to melt in the face of unremitting high humidity. You can ameliorate the likelihood of this happening by planting high (or in pots); assuring excellent drainage by amending heavier soils with sand or gravel; mulching with grit, glass pebbles or small stones; and never watering from above. A caveat: the flowers of almost all the silvers are little dull-yellow buttons: I keep them cut off, letting the silver shine without distraction. In fact, I think the ugly flowers may repel the deer as much as the fuzzy or scaly foliage. But that’s just my opinion.

A. 'Powis Castle'
ARTEMISIA—For this genus, the Latin name is also one of the common names, and sounds a whole lot nicer than “mugwort” and “wormwood.” While some cultivars form neat mounds (‘Silver Mound’), others may assume shrub-like proportions (‘Powis Castle’). Regardless, deer give them a wide berth.

A. schmidtiana 'Silver Mound'

A stelleriana 'Silver Brocade'

CURRY PLANT (Helichrysum italicum) Curry plant lands a one-two defensive punch on browsing deer: it has a strong scent (reminiscent of curry; hence the common name) as well as unpalatable foliage. It is not the source of curry as we know it: the Brits invented that from an olio of Indian spices.


DUSTY MILLER (Senecio cineraria, sometimes labeled as Cineraria maritima) Good ol’ dusty miller, that work-horse of summer vignettes and containers. Planting it among your more deer-favored annuals—such as begonias and petunias—may be enough to make Bambi look elsewhere for a snack.

 LAMBS-EARS (Stachys byzantina, pronounced, for whatever reason, STACK-iss bye-zan-TIE-nah) Nothing says “pet me” so much as a healthy stand of Stachys. Nothing says “get lost” to deer like a healthy stand of Stachys. It’s a win-win sort of plant.

 LAVENDER COTTON (Santolina chamaecyparissus: don’t be scared—say kam-may-sip-arr-ISS-us) When small, lavender cotton looks a lot like curry plant, and shares its deer-deterrence characteristics. When grown up, lavender cotton looks a lot like a shrub, so site yours carefully.

            Succulents’ foliage is either tough and fibrous, or squishy and full of foul-tasting sap. Often, the challenge for Bambi in ingesting this class of plants is complicated by thorns and spines, on leaf tips, leaf margins, and/or leaf surfaces. For places under heavy deer pressure, hardy succulents—like the ones profiled below—may be the way to go. Cultivation requirements are similar to those for silver-foliaged plants.

AGAVE—Although usually associated with Southwestern and desert areas, powder-blue Agave americana is only one of many hardy century plants, many of them variegated. The common name “century plant” is a misnomer, by the way—agaves usually bloom between ages 10 and 15. Interesting factoid: agaves and sempervivums (see below) are monocarps, Latin for “one seed” or “one harvest.” Monocarpic plants die after flowering, but leave behind numerous off-shoots, or “pups,” to take their places.

HENS-AND-CHICKS (Sempervivum spp.) Cold-hardy to Zone 3, hens-and-chicks run a gamut of colors, textures, forms and size. Their rosettes range from a mere half-inch to eight inches across, with smooth or pubescent leaves whorled tightly or loosely, and spider-web-like filaments present or absent. With over 4000 named cultivars to choose from, you may find yourself a collector before you realize it. Don’t ask me how I know.

Delosperma cooperi
ICE PLANT—So-called because some species’ foliage appears coated with ice crystals, South African native ice plants comprise several genera. Cultivars of Delosperma cooperi are most common in the trade, but you may soon find Drosanthemum floribundum selections and the tender Dorotheanthus bellidiformis ‘Mezoo Trailing Red’ taking up a share of table space in garden centers.


MANFREDA (Manfreda virginica) Native to the East Coast, Eastern false aloe is under-appreciated by gardeners. It’s a great plant to play “Quiz the Wizard” with when visitors come to call.


PORTULACA (P. grandiflora) Not a personal favorite of mine—I think it looks weedier than many weeds. Still, for hot and dry deer-resistant applications, it certainly fills the bill. It has the distinction of being among the few true annuals of the succulent world, and is popular because of its jewel-toned flowers, long bloom period, and low maintenance requirements.

Prickly pear pairs well with agave

PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS (Opuntia humifusa) Another East Coast native, prickly pear makes no secret of how it deters deer. I’ve had its barbed spines disappear into in my fingers… through gloves. I certainly wouldn’t want one in my mouth.

A collection of tender sedums in a pot
 SEDUM—Over the past decade or so, sedums have inspired a frenzy among breeders. With more than 300 species to play with, “new” forms and colors appear every season. From tender trailers to hardy groundcovers to upright garden stalwarts, there’s a sedum for every taste, use and pocketbook. And Bambi hates them all.

S. rupestris 'Angelina'

S. telephium 'Herbesfreude'

From left: Agave americana, Opuntia
humifusa,  & Dasylirion texanum

SOTOL (Dasylirion texanum: day-see-LEER-ree-on) I was surprised to learn this desert denizen would survive in southeastern North Carolina, but it does. One look at that giant globe of saw-edged foliage could discourage more than deer.

Yucca filamentosa 'Color Guard'

YUCCA—Aptly named East Coast natives Spanish bayonet (Y. aloifolia) and slightly kinder and gentler Adam’s needle (Y. filamentosa) have hard-to-digest, fibrous leaves that make Bambi walk on by. 

            That’s it for today. Next time it's grasses, groundcovers and herbs.

            Thanks for dropping by.