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Deer Resistant Trees – Conifers

CONIFERS 002 Let’s start with the conifers for this blog on deer resistant trees and shrubs.  Conifers are those tree and shrubs whose seeds are protected by cones (pines, cedars, spruces, etc.).  I think it is interesting to have a few conifers scattered in a yard to add color and diversity.  Resinous sap is one thing that makes it possible for conifers keep their needles, and be able to photosynthesize during the winter.  The sap also makes conifers less palatable and less nutritious for deer.  There are exceptions, and this is a good time to review the Select, Protect and Don’t Neglect advice of a previous post.  While these are less palatable, they are sometimes the only nutrition available.   Poor nutrition is better than no nutrition.  So, it is still important to protect these young plants during winter when they are most attractive to deer.  I feel that the resinous sap may solicit buck rubs, so it is worthwhile to monitor conifers during the fall and add antler blockers if needed.

Pine.  White Pine (Pinus strobus) is a great native tree.  It grows relatively fast.  It likes sunlight, but doesn’t mind shade.  It is tolerant of different soils, but does best in well drained areas.  A mature specimen displays grandeur in the forest or yard.  They do have the tendency to drop limbs in heavy snows, which some dislike.  This is a tree on lists of deer resistant plants that sometimes gets browsed, so you should protect (or watch your tree closely) until it is above the reach of deer.  When I work in the Poconos, this is one tree that regenerates when everything else is being browsed, so I cannot explain why it gets browsed in some yards.

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) does well on poor soils.  It likes lots of sun.  These attributes makes it ideal for a new neighborhood where nothing else will grow.  It takes a few years to get established, but then takes off.  This is one of the most common trees found in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  You could plant this tree just to admire the bark.  

CONIFERS 001 Cedar.  I am a big fan of Eastern Red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana).  (This is actually a Juniper and not a Cedar.)  It likes a lot of sunlight, so is great in a new yard.  It has beautiful blue-green foliage, interesting bark and when it matures it has bluish “berries” that attract birds year round.  We think of Cedar waxwings being attracted to this tree, but bluebirds, woodpeckers, robins and other birds will also flock into red-cedar.  Red-cedar needles are prickly, so don’t plant it in an area where you want to walk bare foot.  While it makes a good hedge/border, I think it is prettier on its own, or in a small (non-linear) grouping.  If you want something smaller try the Common Juniper (Juniperus communis).  This low spreading shrub is attractive, plus it is inviting to wildlife.  While Junipers don’t get browsed much, they do seem to attract buck rubs.  In the wild, these plants end up on edges which make good travel corridors for deer.  Whether it is the location or sap, they seem to be selected disproportionately for buck rubs.

Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and a relative Arborvitae, are exceptions about conifers being avoided by deer.  In northern states, deer make long seasonal migrations to cedar swamps to take advantage of thermal cover as well as the food.  If you have ever paddled a Pine Barrens stream you have seen dense shady stands of Atlantic white cedar.  While beautiful, these species have specific site requirements and need a lot of protection from deer.

Hemlock.  Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is Pennsylvania’s state tree.  It is a wonderful tree, but grows best in the shade.  It is also heavily attacked by hemlock wooly adelgid.  Most of the hemlocks that once graced Mariton’s slopes have been killed by this non-native pest.  In a yard your tree can be protected against adelgids with injections.  Like White Pine, it is on the list of non-browsed species that sometimes gets browsed.  (It shows great deer resistance in the Poconos).  It is a great tree and worth having in a yard, but consider carefully before making the commitment.

Larch.  The Larch or Tamarack (Larix laricina) is an interesting deciduous conifer.  In the fall, its needles turn a beautiful gold and drop.  We are a little south of its native range.  It likes a variety of conditions and is pretty deer resistant.  The European and Japanese Larch are often planted, but why not go with the native?

Spruce.  Spruces aren’t really native to southeastern Pennsylvania.  Some species (White Spruce, Black Spruce and Red Spruce) can be found nearby to the north.  Spruces make great borders and provide windbreaks for your yard.  Deer tend to stay away from eating spruces.  Although a non-native, I really like Norway Spruce (Picea abies).  It doesn’t reproduce in Pennsylvania, so it is not an invasive plant.

 Fir.  Like spruce we don’t have any native firs in southeastern Pennsylvania.  But they are commonly bought as live Christmas trees and later planted.  Douglas and Fraser firs seem to be avoided by deer for food. 

Caveats.  Some of these trees have very specific soil preferences.  Research to make sure your yard is appropriate.  Secondly, there is a tendency to plant conifers in a row to provide a border or windbreak.  This is a good application of these trees, but it can eventually provide thermal shelter and travel corridors for deer.  Deer may start hanging around these areas to browse and rub your other trees. 

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