Do Deer Eat Ferns?


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Deer famously munch and nibble on all kinds of natural greenery. As forest-dwelling animals, they’ve evolved to enjoy a varied diet of nuts, weeds, and a variety of different plants. But are they more discerning than we’ve been led to believe? Do deer like ferns, for example?

Out of choice, no, deer will not eat ferns. They are also known for having a taste for the herbs and weeds that grow on the forest floor – but when it comes to most ferns, they tend to look elsewhere.

Why don’t deer like to eat most ferns?

Ferns simply do not appeal to deer in taste, texture, or size. Ferns do not hold much nutritional value for them either, so the deer will more likely look towards nuts, berries, and weeds if they are available.

However, if they are hungry enough, and there is little else on offer that they will prefer, deer will munch on ferns – so it’s a misconception that the fern is a ‘deer deterrent’. 

During the winter in most US states, good food can prove to be scarce for the average deer. Deer in need of extra energy and fat during the colder months are much less likely to be picky – which means if you’ve ever seen them chowing down on ferns between December and March, it’s likely an act of desperation.

Finding an adequate food source can also be difficult if there are many other deer in the area – and this can be the case if it’s the fawning season. More fawns mean more mouths to feed – and therefore, the competition for food that deer actually enjoy is likely much fiercer. 

Fawns, in fact, have been known to eat ferns – but this is simply because they haven’t yet learned which food will taste or even digest best. It’s not unheard of for fawns to take a ‘trial and error’ approach to eating different food.

While young deer will follow their elders to some extent, they will also take it upon themselves to try as many different plants as possible. Therefore, it’s more likely you’ll find younger deer eating ferns, if at all.

Therefore, if you are interested in growing plants that are good at keeping deer from eating your garden, then ferns will likely resist local animal attacks. In fact, they can do well at attracting deer without keeping them in your garden. 

This is because ferns can grow very tall and provide adequate cover for deer when they are roaming about. They will easily be able to hide underneath – perfect for fawning deer. It’s also why oak trees attract deer so well.

However, simply planting ferns in your yard won’t stop deer from visiting you – it just means they are more likely to eat something else. What’s more, if you’re interested in bringing deer to your garden, ferns are worth avoiding.

Do all deer avoid eating ferns?

No – in fact, it’s thought that deer eating habits can and will vary from area to area. Therefore, if you notice deer in your own area eating ferns – but they don’t seem to be enjoying the plants a mile or so away – it’s simply because there is variation in taste and habits.

Much of the time, this is actually to do with deer having evolved, or at least gotten used to, a lack of food they actively enjoy in the local area. Deer that eat ferns may perhaps be more conditioned to hunting down absolutely everything to survive. Those deer that absolutely do not opt for ferns, meanwhile, may have the luxury of being a little pickier! It will vary from case to case.

What ferns will deer not eat? 

Even though deer have been known to occasionally eat ferns when desperate, some types make even rarer meals for them. Therefore, if you’re interested in creating a colorful garden (but don’t want deer eating all of your flowers), these are the ferns you may wish to plant first:

  • Korean Rock ferns
  • Remote wood ferns
  • Japanese painted ferns
  • Christmas ferns
  • Deer ferns (oddly enough!)
  • Japanese Holly ferns
  • Wood ferns
  • Leatherwood ferns
  • Fancy ferns
  • Log ferns
  • Shaggy Shield ferns
  • Golden Mist ferns
  • Tassel ferns
  • Cinnamon ferns
  • Autumn ferns
  • Lady ferns
  • Robust male ferns
  • Royal ferns
  • Hay-scented ferns

This is by no means an exhaustive list – the general rule of thumb is deer will likely pass up ferns before anything else. That’s not to say some deer won’t find a species on this list particularly tasty – there will always be a chance!

What plants do deer hate the most? 

Ferns don’t happen to be the only plants deer steer clear of. In fact, plants such as foamy bells, coneflowers, sonic bloom weigela, and tall junipers all prove to be hardy against the threat of visiting deer. It’s worth keeping deer-resistant plants in mind if you are tired of them eating everything in sight!

If you wish to grow a garden lush in flowers and don’t want deer eating your blooms, you should also consider planting peonies in full sun or setting up some climbing jasmine. Shade plants belonging to the hellebores family, too, rarely attract attention from deer.

While these plants won’t stop deer from visiting you, you can at least rest easy knowing that they can continue to grow un-nibbled.

It’s also worth noting that, on the whole, deer won’t eat grass – especially if it is very long. Therefore, if you are set on growing a truly wild yard, deer visitors aren’t going to cut your blades down to size.

Should I use ferns to deter deer from my yard?

You can use ferns to help deer-proof your yard, but as mentioned, they won’t keep them out of your garden. Therefore, as well as planting deer-resistant greens in your garden, it’s a great idea to consider trying to use natural deterrents.

Many wild garden owners use spray deterrents that are based on predators’ urine – which will naturally convince wayward deer to look the other way. Be sure to consider natural sprays wherever possible, and only ever spray them across the edge of your yard – never spray directly at animals.

There has even been some success in using sound-based deterrents, too. As it happens, deer can be deterred by ultrasonic waves. You’ll find that there are a host of harmless devices that you can set up in your yard to ward deer away if they come too close – they won’t cause any physical harm.

However, if you are in the process of welcoming squirrels into your yard, for example, ultrasonic wave deterrents will keep such creatures away, too. Therefore, it’s worth considering who you want – and don’t want – to visit you in your garden!

About The Author
Robert has been an avid birdwatcher pretty much his entire life. Living in the suburbs he does his best to bring wild birds into his backyard. He currently has 13+ bird feeders in his yard and also raises and races homing pigeons. Robert writes part-time for Wild Yards, mostly about the subject he cares most about - birds.

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