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Deer Resistant Trees – Laurels and Sumac

If you ask one of NLT’s Preserve Managers to name a woody plant that deer don’t browse, they will answer Spicebush (Lindera benzoin).  This member of the Laurel Family (Lauraceae) is a shrub that is very common in Pennsylvania’s forests precisely because deer don’t eat it.  While that makes it “common” in a derogatory way for some, it is beautiful in a yard.  It grows up to 10 feet high (most are about 4 – 6 feet high) and up to two inches in diameter.  This shrub likes shade and will do better under some trees or as a border.  It has delicate yellow flowers in spring, bright red berries in early fall, and aromatic twigs and leaves.  And deer don’t eat it.  (It is worthwhile to review how to protect young plantings.)

MEBUS SassafrasMaritonField1014 Another member of the Laurel Family is Sassafras (Sassafras albidum).  This is one of my favorite trees.  Sassafras is an early succesional species.  It is a small tree growing up to 50 feet.  It likes sun, tolerates a variety of soils, and grows quickly.  Sassafras leaves have multiple shapes, turn bright colors in the fall, and smell wonderful.  Interestingly, I seldom see someone (young or old) walk by a Sassafras without stopping to admire the leaves.  The bark on mature trees is chunky ridges with orange tinges on the edges.  Trees are of one sex, so you need multiple trees to produce the blue fleshy fruit.  These are prone to clone.  So, if you give an individual some room, it will send up several shoots to form a nice little colony.  Both Spicebush and Sassafras are the major food plants for the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (worth attracting to your yard).   While deer don’t eat Sassafras, bucks do seek out saplings for rubs.  (Photo by Carole Mebus.)

MEBUS SumacMaritonField1013-2 Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) is a great native shrub that loves sunlight.  This plant is so interesting, that I can’t understand why it doesn’t get used in the landscape.  It is a low gracefully spreading shrub.  Start out with the fuzzy twigs that resemble a buck’s antlers when they are in velvet.  Then consider the compound lacey leaves that turn brilliant red and orange in the fall.  Finally, the fruit persists most of the winter in an upright pyramid cluster of red fuzzy berries.  This is another clone species that will form a cluster of genetically identical individuals if given some space in an open area.  Deer don’t browse this shrub very much, but bucks love to rub the trunk.  One more thing, you don’t get “poison” from a Staghorn Sumac.  (Poison Sumac [Toxicodendron vernix or Rhus vernix] grows mostly in wet inaccessible swamps.)  (Photo by Carole Mebus.)

Crow’s Nest: Aerial Art in Nature

Stream dendrite

We use Google EarthTM a lot at the preserves. It serves as a basic Geographic Information System (GIS) and is ideal for us because its use is free. Even the folks at our main office who use professional GIS software have embraced it: they can export boundary data and other information to us in the field using Google Earth-compatible files. In the field we can use a GPS (global positioning system) unit to place waypoints that are visible in Google Earth back in the office. And now we can even use Google Earth on a smartphone so that we can see where we stand in real time in the field with the preserve or easement boundaries and other features showing on an aerial photograph.

But this post is about is how beautiful some of the aerial images are, particularly the abstract patterns of nature and land use. Above is the dendritic pattern of water flowing through a swamp into French Creek at Crow's Nest.

Hayfield tracks

Above is our parking lot, overflow parking, and the trailhead at Crow's Nest surrounded by dormant meadow. Notice also the pattern of tractor tracks from spreading lime in the hay field north of the hedgerow. These photos were taken in April 2010.


Here is the pattern of crop strips and waterways in the farm fields at Crow's Nest, employed here to minimize soil erosion on hilly terrain.

Celebrating six years of weblog…

Our first posts to this weblog began six years ago. Writing about the preserves is fun and puts our land stewardship work in perspective—but it is not the same as getting the work done.

For Christmas my amazing wife Denise put together a book of highlights from the first five years of the blog; she selected, edited and did the page layout of this beautiful little book.


I'd write more often but blogging has to be a rainy day, night or weekend spare time activity. We hope you enjoy the blog!


Deer Resistant Trees – Pioneer Species

It baffles me why landscape professionals (architects, designers and gardeners) don’t take advantage of early successional, or pioneer trees and shrubs for yards.  (A quick definition of Succession.)  Early successional plants are usually the first ones to move in after a disturbance (fire, wind, flooding, agriculture, logging or building a house). 

Why are they an obvious choice for yards?  They like sunlight, tolerate poor soils, grow quickly and can stand a variety of conditions.   Part of their role is to build the soil for future forest stages, which is a good thing in a new development where the topsoil was stripped.  They also have interesting or attractive bark, foliage, and flowers.  They tend to attract wildlife with their seeds, because they must travel so far afield to colonize freshly disturbed areas.  Finally, deer tend to avoid eating pioneer trees and shrubs. 

We have already mentioned some early successional plants in the conifer section.  Virginia Pine, White Pine, and Eastern Red-cedar are some early successional species that are great in yards. 

Other pioneers that we will consider in more depth in future posts are Sassafras, Birch, Aspen, Willow, etc.  These are the species that would come in naturally if you did nothing in your yard.  So, listen to nature and your yard will be happier.

Our visit to Stroud Preserve


As I've mentioned before, this winter Owen and I are visiting the sixteen Natural Lands Trust preserves described in the members' field guide. Today we visited Stroud Preserve near West Chester. With its rolling hills it is perhaps the most photogenic of our preserves, though of course I am partial to Crow's Nest.


I also wanted to see the newly drawn-down pond. As part of a wetland restoration the artificial farm pond is being returned to a natural wetland which is better habitat for native wildlife.

We also saw one of many fields that are being afforested; here a floodplain of Brandywine Creek Natural Lands Trust is returning to forest cover to protect water quality and improve wildlife habitat:


Crow’s Nest: On the boardwalk

Each holiday season I try to accomplish a project that is a little different than my daily routine; it's a reward to myself. Occasionally it has been building a footbridge, milling lumber for a project, or repairing some piece of the preserve's infrastructure. This year it was all three.


I started with milling a log from the oak tree that had fallen in the meadow earlier this year. At 28" diameter it pushed the limits of the sawmill and the tractor needed to lift it, and was bigger around than my slip-chains would encircle, so just squaring it off was a challenge.

Nice office, eh?

I made boards custom-sized to replace those along the creek trail boardwalk that had rotted, then Sean and I trimmed them and nailed them down (the hard part of this last step is removing the broken old boards and nails!).


This boardwalk carries visitors through a wet section of red maple woods. I find it hard to believe but these boards represent the start of the third generation of wood decking (admittedly untreated) on this boardwalk which I built 12 years ago. A photograph of this rustic boardwalk graces a wall in the restroom at Natural Lands Trust's main office (yes, really), so in other words the new wood on this boardwalk is two generations removed from what is in the photo.

The black locust in ground contact, however, is still hard as stone.

I hope you enjoy the holiday season as much as I am!

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. 

Deer Resistant Trees and Shrubs Part I

Over the winter I plan to use the blog for a series on browse resistant native trees and shrubs for yards.  I am not wild about the plant lists, because someone always has an anecdote about how their such and such was browsed into oblivion by deer.  There are a number of variables why that could have happened.  I won’t profess to foresee them all, but I think we can cover a few. 

 SELECT.  First off; deer seem to have regional preferences and dislikes for some plants.  (One reason I don’t like the lists.)  Perhaps the soil affects the chemical properties of the plant. There may be other trees available locally that deer prefer to eat.  It may be how their “mama raised ‘em”.  It doesn’t matter.  You should select plants that deer avoid in your neighborhood. 

 A good place to start your selection is by taking a walk in a local woodlot in the spring, after leaf-out.  If deer are abundant where you live, then any abundant plant is probably somewhat deer tolerant.  Once you have identified a tree or shrub, you then want to look at the branches of several specimens to see if they sustained a lot of browsing over the winter.  Some plants can suffer a fair amount of browse damage, but still survive.  This may, or may not, be a good plant for landscaping purposes.  While it may survive, its appearance may become ragged after several winters.  Look at what you are seeing in the woods to help you gauge what the impact will have on a plant’s appearance.

 Next, research the given plant.  Make sure the species will like your yard.  Is there enough, or too much sunlight in your yard?  Do you have enough room?  Is it too wet, too dry, too rocky, etc? 

 Once you find a species, you should purchase from a native nursery.  If you purchase a cultivar, it is possible that while it was being bred for some trait (like fall foliage) that the process also bred out deer resistance.  Plants grown from native (and local) seeds or rootstock are more likely to retain that deer resistance that you witnessed on your walk in the woods.

PROTECT.  You must protect young plantings.  Deer eat everything; or at least they will try it once.  Even spicebush (Lindera benzoin) gets browsed.  Whether you eat carrots, cattle or cottonwoods the young ones are tastier and tenderer.   Here is a math question.  If you plant a young (deer resistant) tree with 20 buds, and 10 different deer come by and sample 2 buds each before deciding it tastes bad… well, you might have lost that tree.    Use tree tubes, fencing or repellents until most of the tree gets above 5 feet, and is established.  Natural Lands Trust plants thousands of trees every year on our preserves.  We use tree tubes and have good survival rates for our plantings.

 If tubes or fencing are more objectionable to you than an overbrowsed and dead tree, then you can try repellents.  My recommendation is:  Don’t buy the gallon jug.  You want to use different repellents to stay one step ahead of what deer might find tolerable.  (I couldn’t stand lima beans the first time I tried them.  But after years of trials, I have found them to be tolerable.  If I was gut-wrenching hungry, they would be absolutely delicious.)

Deer don’t just ruin trees by eating them.  Bucks can girdle a tree when they rub their antlers in the fall.  Location is probably the biggest factor why deer rub certain trees in your yard.  (Although certain tree species do seem to attract rutting bucks, and we will talk about them later.)  It is easy to protect.  In September, I drive stout sticks around the tree in a way that prevents a deer from getting to the trunk.  Put up the obstruction when you get your leaf rake out in the fall.  Take it down when you get ready to mow lawn in the spring.


You have invested time, research and money into your trees and shrubs.  Don’t walk away now.  Inspect them regularly.  Enjoy their beauty up close.  Check your fencing, and repair if necessary.  Remember to reapply repellents after it rains.  You have to be diligent to give any new plantings a chance, especially in areas where deer browse heavily.

If you Select, Protect and Don’t Neglect, you can get almost anything to thrive in your yard.  In future posts, I will help you with selection.  I’ll discuss tree and shrub species that work.

Yes, it’s cold!

We are all feeling the cold, though it has not been as cold as it will be!

Having frozen ground helps us get projects completed because we can get the tractor to places we otherwise couldn't. Remember every project has its season. In addition to a rainy-day list (indoor stuff that can wait for a rainy day) I also have a frozen-ground list of things to do.

… And someone who is not so dry

Todd Bauman, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary's Director of Land and Facilities, started his epic journey from mountain to sea, today of all days. He's been planning this trip for months or years—so what's a little torrent of rain, extreme winds, and plunging temperatures for the first day of paddling?

Todd is paddling solo from Hawk Mountain to Cape May over the next two weeks. His expedition connects the two most famous and best birding spots in our region—a ridgetop that guides migrating raptors on their way south in autumn and a beachfront where neotropical migrants stop to feed on their way north to summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. Donations to his journey benefit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. You can follow his trip on his weblog link above (yes, he has packed a computer in the canoe). 


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