Deer Resistant Plants
First, a few words of caution. There is no such thing as a deer proof plant. We can give you some tips and suggestions, based on our experience and the experiences of others, but there are no guarantees. You have to experiment and find out what works in your situation.
Natural Chemical Deterrence
Deer tend to avoid plants with strong aromas. The strong smells from sage (Salvia), sagebrush (Artemisia) and bay (Umbellularia) are examples of chemical defences the plants use to deter grazing from deer, other browsers and insects. Such deterrence works well in mid-summer, but is less effective in the early spring, when the foliage is newly emerging or in the fall, when the deer are hungry and less picky.
Other plants use noxious or even slightly toxic compounds to deter grazing. Buckeye (Aesculus) are well known for the toxic compounds in their foliage, seeds, and even flowers. Examples of native plants with toxic alkaloids are: Lupinus (Lupines), Amsinckia (Fiddleneck) and Solanaceae (Nightshade family).
Plants straight from the nursery have been watered and fertilized, and have not necessarily built up chemical defences. After the plant in installed and lives in real soil, it toughens up, builds up its chemical defenses and becomes less palatible. A plant that will be attacked by deer fresh from the nursery may deter deer the following year.
For instance, we have noticed that fruit from trees in nursery containers may not have much flavor, but the same tree in the ground will produce delicious fruit. Vintners speak of the importance of terroir. I suspect the same thing happens with the foliage. A plant from the nursery will have little flavor, but the same plant will have a stronger flavor after growing in the ground.
Deer Feeding Preferences Change from Place to Place
A plant that attracts deer in one location may not attract them in another. We do not know the reason, but it may have to do with local climate, personal taste, management history of the site or differences in soil chemistry.
Applied Chemical Deterrence
There are many products sold on the market to deter deer. Made from rotten eggs, garlic, pig blood, etc., they are intended to be foul tasting and foul smelling. I cannot attest to their taste, but they do smell foul.
They all seem to work for a while. Eventually, the deer figure it out, and the deterrence stops working. You need to keep a couple of different types of deer deterrent in your arsenal. Change your deterrent every few weeks to keep the deer off guard.
Tough Foliage or Spines
Many plants will grow spines on their leaves or stems as a physical deterrent. Some of these plants are otherwise quite palatable to deer, such as rose, oak, ceanothus, etc. From what we've seen, spiny leaves are only partly effective. Determined deer will browse them anyway.
As woody plants grow larger, their branches act as a deer deterrent. The deer browse the outer foliage, but the branches will prevent them from browsing the inner foliage. This prevents the plant from excessive deer damage, and allows them to regrow and recover.