Do Deer Eat Sunflowers?


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If there’s a better way to get your garden ready for summer than by planting sunflowers, we don’t know what it is. These cheery yellow open-faced blooms are a fantastic way to usher in warmer weather. They’re also a popular choice for wildlife. The birds and the bees just love to forage on sunflowers, though they seldom do much damage. But what about the deer? Do deer eat sunflowers?

Yes, deer do eat sunflowers. While they may have a tough time eating the flower heads of the tallest sunflowers, they will snack on shorter varieties. If you plan on growing sunflowers, it’s important to take measures to keep the deer away so they don’t destroy them. 

Why do deer eat sunflowers?

Deer are grazers. They like to nibble on vegetation throughout the day to keep their digestive systems in proper working order. While we’d like to think that deer only eat ryegrass and oats, the fact is these pesky critters love to snack on ornamental blooms, including sunflowers. 

Deer love to eat sunflowers for the same reasons bees, butterflies, and bugs enjoy them. They’re full of protein-rich pollen and sweet-tasting nectar. But, ultimately, it’s the seeds that make these flowers irresistible to the deer. Sunflowers that bloom in late summer produce seeds in autumn when deer need them most to prepare for the cold months ahead. They’re an excellent source of fats, oils, and proteins.

As for the sunflower plant itself, the deer may or may not like to eat that, too. Younger plants are extremely palatable. But the foliage of mature sunflowers is prickly and fuzzy. Many deer aren’t inclined to eat it. They prefer smooth, delicate leafy greens that don’t irritate their mouths when they chew them. This is why they like to nibble on new growth and feed on softer plants, like petunias or hydrangeas

Which sunflowers do deer like to eat best?

Pollinators can be picky about which blooms they choose to visit. Most bees and butterflies like to feed on flowers that are unhybridized and will choose these varieties consistently over others. Deer, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as finicky. But they especially like to eat the smaller sunflower varieties because they’re easier for them to reach. 

‘Short Stuff’ sunflowers are just perfect, from a deer’s perspective. They reach maximum heights of two and a half feet. The flower heads are massive at eight inches wide. These are large blooms that are easy for foraging deer to spot, and they provide a huge payoff. 

Other dwarf sunflowers, like ‘Little Becka’ and ‘Teddy’ varieties, are also deer favorites. But taller sunflowers like the ‘Mammoth’ or the ‘Skyscraper’ may still fall prey to the deer while they’re still growing, especially if they start budding out before they’ve reached their average height of 12 feet. 

Do other animals eat sunflowers, too?

Besides deer, sunflowers can fall prey to several foragers, including squirrels, groundhogs, birds, and rabbits. A careful inspection of your sunflower patch will help you determine which animal is to blame.

Small mammals eat low on the plant. You’ll notice leaves missing from the base and new stems nibbled down to small stubs. Because small animals don’t eat as much as deer in a single sitting, it may take you a few days to realize that something has been lunching on your sunflowers. Smaller animals also tend to eat in a more haphazard fashion, taking bites off here and there before moving on to other plants.

Squirrels are unique because they can climb the tallest sunflowers to reach their seeds. They can climb fences and nearby trees to collect them as well. Even chickens will destroy sunflowers to get to the seeds if they get the opportunity.

Many bugs feed on sunflowers, too, including grasshoppers, green flies, and aphids. But it’s the moths that do the most damage. Sunflower moths, in particular, lay their eggs on these plants so their caterpillars have plenty of food to eat once they hatch. Inspect your sunflower plants regularly and pick these bugs off when you see them — or mix up a pollinator-safe pesticide by diluting a tablespoon of white vinegar in two cups of water and spraying it on the sunflower stalks.

How can you tell if deer are eating your sunflowers?

Deer can eat your tender young sunflowers down to almost nothing overnight. They’ll tear off individual leaves to chew on, leaving bare stems behind. If the stems themselves are tender enough, they’ll take those, too. In either case, deer tend to feed on plants by starting at the top and working their way down. 

Deer can reach flowers and buds up to six feet, maybe seven feet if they decide to stand up on their back legs. If you suspect deer are responsible for destroying your sunflower garden, but you just aren’t sure, take a look around your yard. There may be some other signs that they’ve been visiting.

What other signs indicate deer have been eating in your yard? 

Deer like to browse. So if they’re eating your sunflowers, there’s a good chance they’re nibbling on your other plants, too. Go around your yard and take a closer look at your landscaping. If your other ornamentals are missing their uppermost growth it’s likely that deer are the culprits. There are a few other ways to tell if deer have been coming into your backyard, too. 

Search for deer droppings

Because deer need to be able to flee at a moment’s notice, they prefer to stay in a clear space when they graze, as opposed to between large shrubbery. They don’t want to take a chance of getting snagged on some bushes if a predator were to come up behind them. 

Look around in grassy areas for any signs of deer scat. Deer droppings look a lot like rabbit droppings, only bigger. You’ll see piles of round pellets the size of marbles. Sometimes the pellets will be stuck together in clumps. Deer droppings don’t smell, since they only eat vegetation (although, when food is scarce, they have been known to eat meat). Fresher scat will be the most obvious. Older droppings break down quickly when exposed to sunlight and rain, so they can be harder to find.

Look for deer tracks

If you have loose sandy soil or if you have a low spot in your yard that stays wet most of the time, check these areas for deer tracks. Deer have cloven hooves, so their tracks can be mistaken for hog tracks. But deer tracks are narrow and more pointed, whereas hog tracks are short, stubby, and rounded.

Deer tracks measure between one and four inches long. Doe tracks are narrower and daintier with sharper points at the toes. Conversely, buck tracks tend to be more splayed. Because bucks are heavier, they sink more than does do when they take a step. As a result, most buck tracks have two distinctive dots at the heel-end of each track, a result of the buck’s dewclaw making contact with the ground.

Check your tree trunks

Another way to tell if deer have been going through your yard is to inspect your trees. In the fall, bucks will rub their antlers on the trees. They do this for two reasons. First, it helps them remove the velvety protective covering on their newly grown antlers. And, second, it allows them to mark their territory.

Unfortunately, this process can strip trees of their cambium, the layer of living tissue between the outer bark and the trunk that helps send nutrients to all parts of the tree. In severe cases, deer can end up killing a tree by rubbing their antlers on it. So if you notice bare spots in the bark of your trees, and your sunflowers are getting smaller by the day, it’s safe to say it’s the deer’s fault. 

How can you keep deer away from your sunflower patch?

Once you’ve determined that the deer are to blame for destroying your precious sunflowers, it’s time to act. You’ve got to get out there and protect your flowers from these pesky critters right away. There’s no time to lose when it comes to defending your landscaping from these nonstop grazers. But just what can you do?

Use deer repellent

Start with a good deer repellent. You can find them at local feed stores and other wildlife shops. These sprays contain substances that smell strongly and taste terrible to the deer. Spraying them on and around your plants is sure to send the deer off in the other direction. 

You can also make your own deer repellent by mixing up a couple of eggs with some onion juice and garlic juice. Add just enough water to send the mixture through a spray nozzle, and douse your plants with it. Deer loathe the taste of these sulfur-rich ingredients. 

Make use of outdoor lighting

Keeping your backyard lights on at night can help, too, but some deer get used to it over time. This is especially true if you live in a suburban area. Deer can become desensitized to human activity. 

If your flood lights just aren’t doing the trick, try red cat-eye lights. Deer will see these lights looking at them from the bushes, think they’re a big cat that’s hunting them, and run for the hills. Remember, deer are prey animals. So anything that triggers their “fight or flight” instinct will help keep them out of your yard. 

Keep your garden noisy

Windchimes can help keep the deer away, and make your garden more interesting, to boot. They move and make noise intermittently in an unpredictable manner that deer dislike. Whirligigs are also discomfortingly distracting for deer. 

Motion detecting deer-repelling sprinklers can be tremendously effective. Deer hate their unpredictability. They also don’t like being sprayed with water, or the loud, unmellow sound of water spitting out of the nozzle.

Do deer eat sunflowers planted near other flowers that they don’t like?

We know that deer eat sunflowers. They love them. But do deer eat sunflowers when they’re planted near other flowers they hate? Most of the time, the answer is no. 

The best way to protect your sunflowers is by planting them along a wooden privacy fence, shed, house, or other structure, and planting deer-resistant flowers in front of them. The following plants will act as a natural defensive barrier for your sunflowers.

Bee balm

Keep your unflowers safe by planting bee balm in front of them. This wildflower is available in a number of hybrid varieties and can be harvested to make a delicious tea. While this plant is extremely popular with pollinators (it’s one of the bee’s favorite snacks), it’s a big red stop sign for the deer. They hate bee balm’s prickly, thistle-y flowers.

Aromatic herbs

Chives, garlic, and rosemary are also great for planting near sunflowers. These flowering herbs produce a strong odor that deer can’t stand, so they’ll help keep your sunflowers intact all season long. Plus, you can harvest these herbs and chop them up to use in stews, salads, and casseroles.

Sea holly

Sea holly produces dozens of pale purple thistle-like blossoms that deer hate. These flowers are so easy to grow, so if a low-maintenance garden is what you’re going for, this is the plant for you. And, as a bonus, it’s wonderful for attracting more butterflies to your yard.

Do deer eat sunflowers? Yes. All the time. Fortunately, with a little careful planning, you can keep the deer away from your sunflower patch and protect these yellow beauties while they bloom.

About The Author
Michelle Sanders is an outdoor enthusiast who is passionate about teaching others how to observe and support their local wildlife. She enjoys gardening, birdwatching, and trying (in vain) to get butterflies to land on her.

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