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Monday - December 07, 2009

From: Seattle, WA
Region: Northwest
Topic: Deer Resistant, Shrubs, Trees
Title: Why is Rhus aromatica more deer resistant from Seattle
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I have a large area that I would like to cover with Rhus aromatica. My landscaper says that in his experience, Rhus typhina and glabra in this area are heavily browsed by deer. I noticed in your database that Rhus aromatica is rated "high" in terms of deer resistance. The other species of Rhus are not rated. Is there a chemical difference between the two plants that would make one more deer resistant than the other?


Your landscaper is correct, both Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac) and Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) are heavily browsed by deer.  If you will notice in the introduction to the Deer-Resistant Species list you mentioned, deer tend to avoid aromatic plants. One of the common names of Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac) is "Polecat Bush." We have no personal experience with the plant, but we have heard that some believe it just plain stinks. 

There are two problems there: If the deer are hungry enough because of loss of habitat, drought or other reasons, they will hold their noses and eat anything. The second problem is that Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac) is native nowhere farther west than Missouri. At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, we are dedicated to the use, care and propagation of plants native not only to North America but to the area in which they are being grown. We are not sure how the conditions in Washington differ from the eastern part of the United States, but it is a strong indicator that the plant would not prosper there and, in fact, might not even be commercially available there. Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac) shares the same area of nativity, and is probably not viable in Washington, either. Only Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) is native to Washington, and, in fact, is the only sumac native to all 48 contiguous states. 

Sumacs often form dense thickets, spreading from underground runners, and are difficult to eliminate once they become established. Even if you could obtain and grow the Rhus aromatica, you might not enjoy a strong-smelling, heavily overgrown field all that much.

If we might make an alternate suggestion, deer do not seem to care much for grasses. There are six grasses on the Deer-Resistent Species list that are native to Washington.  We are going to list them, and you can follow each link to find out more about the appearance and sun requirements of the grasses. 

Deer-resistant grasses native to Washington:

Aristida purpurea (purple threeawn)

Bouteloua curtipendula (sideoats grama)

Elymus canadensis (Canada wildrye)

Eleocharis rostellata (beaked spikerush) - pictures

Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem)

Typha latifolia (broadleaf cattail)

From our Native Plant Image Gallery:

Aristida purpurea

Bouteloua curtipendula

Elymus canadensis

Schizachyrium scoparium

Typha latifolia





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