Top 12 Deer-Resistant Flower Bulbs
Creating a beautiful garden when deer live in your neighborhood can be a daunting task. Ways of deterring deer vary from temporary and permanent physical barriers, to motion-activated devices, repellants, and even to attracting deer to an alternate area. What works at one time and at one place may not work again since deer feeding behavior can be affected by many factors, such as:
- Hunger level
- Availability of preferred foods
- Population and habitat pressures
- Geography and regional tastes
The best strategy is to start with plants that are most likely to be unattractive to deer. Many bulbs make good choices as deer-resistant plants.
Bulbs, especially the spring bulbs, are often growing when food for deer is scarce, so having plant options at this time which are unattractive to deer is particularly beneficial. The attributes that make deer avoid these plants are presumed to be their toxic make-up, intense smell or bitter taste, or thick sap, so be on the lookout for these qualities in plants.
- Daffodils (Narcissus). This family includes jonquils and paperwhites too. Most varieties are hardy in USDA zones 4-8. Best in full to part sun. As a group, daffodils offer the most varietal choices of the bulbs. Useful in beds, borders, wild gardens and fronting shrubs. Upper plant parts contain both the toxin lycorine and calcium oxalate crystals. Their bitter taste may be the reason for their avoidance.
- Snowdrop (Galanthus). Hardy in USDA zones 3-7 and best in full to part sun. White flowers stand out in woodland margins, under deciduous trees, rock gardens and paths, and will naturalize in drifts. Snowdrop is one of the earliest flowering plants. It too has poisonous alkaloid compounds such as lycorine. Two of the best are ‘Flore Pleno’ and 'Woronowii'
- Common Hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis). Hyacinth is hardy in USDA zones 4-8 and best planted in mass or clusters in full sun. Flower colors are blue, purple, pink, red or white. Their intense fragrance may be the reason deer avoid them.
- Ornamental Onion (Allium). Alliums come in diverse sizes, forms and bloom colors. Their hardiness varies but most are hardy to at least USDA zone 5. They have a long bloom time and are useful as cut flowers, along walkways, garden paths, in perennial beds and rock gardens. Although they prefer full sun, they also tolerate some shade so they can be used in shade gardens. Their deer deterrence probably comes from their strong smell and taste.
- Fritillary (Fritillaria). The two commonly grown species are the tall Crown Imperial with flowers in oranges, reds and yellows, hardy to USDA zones 5-8, and Guinea-hen Flower, hardy to USDA zones 3-8, with a checkered red-brown flower. Both do well in full sun with some part sun where hot. Crown Imperial makes an impressive grouping at the rear of a border. The Guinea-hen Flower is at home in naturalized areas, massed in borders, woodland gardens and rock gardens. They also perform well as cut flowers. All species have a typical skunk fragrance.
- Spider Lily (Lycoris). Hardy in USDA zones 5b-10, spider lily has a showy red flower that blooms in late summer to fall. It can grow in full to part sun, but flowering is best in part sun. It is often interplanted with annuals, other perennials and groundcovers, and naturalizes well. As the genus name implies, this plant also contains the toxin lycorine.
- Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa). Another very early bloomer, Glory-of-the-Snow is hardy to USDA zones 3-8 and may be lavender blue with a white center, light pink or white. They are similar to plants called squill (Scilla spp.) which are also deer resistant. They grow in full to part sun and are stunning naturalized in mass or in sunny woodlands. They also make good cut flowers.
- Bluebells (Hyacinthoides). The 2 common species used in gardening are the English and Spanish Bluebells. English bluebells are smaller, hardy in USDA zones 5-8 and fragrant. Spanish bluebells are hardier (zones 3-8). Both flower best with ample moisture in early spring and grow in sun or shade, specifically best in sun-dappled part shade. Both are deer resistant. Mass them in a woodland or dot them through a perennial bed.
- Buttercup (Ranunculus). The multi-petalled and flashy Asiatic buttercup is hardy in USDA zones 8-10 while other species we garden with may be hardy to zone 4 or colder. Buttercups need sun and are found in moist meadows and open fields. They can be used in borders, beds, containers and as cut flowers. All buttercups contain a compound called ranunculin which breaks down into an acrid tasting toxic oil called protoanemonin when leaves are crushed or bruised. Plants may be more toxic in the spring when they are actively growing and flowering.
- Amaryllis (Hippeastrum). These are the large-flowered potted plants sold during the holidays which come in shades of red, pink, and white with interesting markings. Hardy in USDA zones 8-10, they can continue to be grown in containers or planted in-ground where it is warm enough. Outdoors they can tolerate sun to shade but do best in part sun. Amaryllis are in the same family as daffodils and snowdrop and contain the bitter poison lycorine.
- Iris (Iris). Bearded Iris (I. germanica), Siberian Iris (I. sibirica) and Japanese Water Iris (I. ensata) all appear to be deer resistant and are generally hardy in USDA zones 4-9 or 3-8. These plants are not true bulbs but grow from rhizomes (underground stems). They all have very showy flowers in a multitude of colors and provide many gardening options beyond naturalizing. Bearded iris do well in sunny beds and borders. The Japanese iris can be used as a water plant, in moist borders and rain gardens. The Siberian iris can be grown in a wide range of soils in sun to part sun. Iris do contain toxic compounds. Their deterrence to deer may also come from the fragrance of many of the varieties.
- Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis). This is another rhizomatous perennial. It is hardy in USDA zones 3-7. The delicate, white, bell-shaped flowers are highly fragrant. This long-lived plant is an old-time favorite naturalizing in shady woodlands or as a groundcover where the robust spread is an advantage. They may be invasive in the Midwest. All parts of the plant are very poisonous, containing cardiac glycosides.
Given the number of options, beauty and reliability of bulbs, selecting deer-resistance bulbs are a great way to add beauty to your landscape while reducing the probability your garden becomes a feeding ground for deer.