Are There Any Reliably Deer Resistant Fruit Trees and Shrubs?

Deer resistance is a term used to describe plants or trees that can hold up to some amount of deer browse. Resistant is the key word because it implies that a tree is not deer proof.

The thing about trees who make edible fruits is that they tend to also have some degree of edible leaves, sap and cambium (young bark) too. Deer are often happy to snack on, or make whole meals of, our fruit trees’ leaves and young branch tips.

Deer appreciate when we offer them our succulent fruit trees because they enjoy including them in their diet. Deer’s preferences are very seasonal and they also depend on a diverse diet to be healthy. So at different times through the season they will appreciate our fruit trees leaves and buds as part of their salad bar.

A more domesticated tree like the common apple has been more cultivated than many other fruit trees. Like other crops that we enjoy, plants that are more domesticated tend to give up some of the deer resistant traits like thorns and poisons. As a broad generalization we could presume that the more domesticated a fruit tree is, the less deer resistant it may be.

Pink Pearl apple blossoms.

Apple sap is extremely sweet and while the leaves and bark have some poisons present, the sweetness of the leaves is too much for the deer to resist. In fact humans of the not too distant past also relied on apple leaves and bark for medicine.

As herbalists often say, the difference between medicine and poison often comes down to dosage. Today’s herbalists and our not too distant ancestors knew how to determine dosage by listening to the plants and their bodies.

Deer are very tuned into their bodies and know how much of any given poison they can ingest before it will compromise their health. That is to say that deer will absolutely devour a bunch of apple leaves from our young apple tree in one meal because they are deliciously sweet and also offer medicinal value. Ask me how I know! 😉

On the other hand, during famine times deer will devour “stuffer” foods. This means they will fill up on anything that’s available to them if there is not enough nutritious food available. In the worst of times they’ll even fill up on toxic foods or plants with little to no nutritional value even if it results in poor health or even death.

So we have to keep in mind that deer can and quite possibly eventually will eat nearly any fruiting tree or shrub that we want to grow. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that many fruit trees and shrubs do have some inherent deer resistance built into their genetics. For example our local deer don’t eat our quince tree leaves as much as they eat our apple leaves.

Quince leaves are a bit fuzzier in texture and not as sweet. I suspect quince is far less domesticated than apples which may have something to do with it as well.

Quince blossoms.

Even though quince and apple are in the same family, Rosaceae, and have many similar qualities I don’t have to protect our quinces nearly as much as I have to protect our apple trees. In fact I am much more relaxed about how I protect quince trees from deer browse.

Unfortunately I can’t claim that quince will be a solid deer resistant tree for you just because it has been for me over the last 5 seasons. There are many other factors to consider, not the least of which are the preferences and habits of your local deer!

Whitetail deer for example are so pervasive that they live in every continental state of the US and range as far north as Canada and as far south as South America. Whitetail deer have 26 subspecies, so they are quite diverse. Every local population has somewhat different evolutionary traits and preferences.

In addition when you take into consideration seasonality and deer population size its hard to know for sure what will happen when we plant a deer “resistant” fruit tree! As I always say the level of “resistant” in deer resistance is not only subjective, but also relative to so many factors. That is why it can be hard to trust nurseries that may claim deer resistance on some of their trees!

Luckily we don’t need to know every factor that might influence what a deer eats on any given day. I like to encourage opening a conversation with your local deer to see what their personal tastes and habits are! What do they want to snack on and what will they pass by?

Want to grow trees more naturally in the presence of deer? You don’t need to install a costly deer fence around your entire orchard or property. Protect your fruit and nut trees individually from deer. Fine tune deer protection based on your goals, habits of your local deer and any inherent deer resistant qualities within your trees. Allow deer and other wildlife safe passage through the land you steward.

See our course Protect Fruit and Nut Trees from Deer and Rodents for details!

Quince fruit.

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