Salvias are not a favorite food for deer. However, they will eat some when plants they consider tasty are in short supply. There is no such thing as deer-proof plants, but you can limit deer damage to your landscaping and vegetable garden by planting lots of sages and other plants that aren't among deer favorites.
Deer aren’t dear to the heart of many gardeners who live in areas where Bambi, his mom and hungry bucks roam. But do deer devour Salvia?
When these four-legged dinner guests visit in spring, they are usually looking for what is called “browse” – the tender, growing tips of trees and shrubs. However, as the seasons advance, they also may find edibles such as acorns, clover, flowers, garden crops, grass, nuts and tender herbaceous shoots hard to resist.
Snooty About Sages
The good news is that sages are not among deer favorites. So, depending on the tastes and size of the local population, you may need to fence azaleas, burning bush, roses, strawberries, willows and many other plants delicious to deer. However, you probably don’t have to worry much about your sages. This snootiness is to your advantage.
One theory is that deer and others of their ilk -- such as elk -- don’t like the fragrance of sage leaves, which contain volatile oils. Also known as essential oils, plant volatile oils are aromatic, concentrated combinations of chemicals.
Offensively fragrant or not, there are no truly deer-proof plants. When pickings are slim and deer are hungry near the end of winter and in early spring, they may not turn up their rostrums (a fancy Latin word for “snouts”) at sages. As Washington’s King County notes, the only deer-proof plants are ones “deer haven’t found or can’t reach.”
Seldom Doesn’t Mean Never
Although many landscapers, garden books, plant nurseries and university agricultural extension programs often say that deer seldom eat Salvias, remember that “seldom” doesn’t equal “never.”
Similar to how exposure to culinary variety helps children develop a taste for vegetables that may not be on their “A” list – such as artichokes and spinach -- some deer may develop an unexpected taste for particular sages in your yard. Plus, not all types of deer enjoy the same plants.
Visit any online garden forum and you may discover widely varying experiences. While one gardener from Mississippi plants lots of Black and Blue Anise-Scented Sage (Salvia guaranitica), because the local herd doesn’t like it, another in New Jersey finds that deer devour all the flowers on her S. guaranitica.
Don’t Fence Me In?
Nevertheless, one of the best ways to minimize deer damage is to include a variety of sages in your landscape along with other plants considered less tempting to deer. Then you can note damage as it occurs and replace plants that attract too much damage.
Other options include sharing your landscape with unexpected nibblers or fencing certain plants or areas of the yard. Wild animals are likely to find young plants particularly tasty. Although well-established Salvias put up with nibbling, it would be a big problem for plants getting established. Placing a chicken-wire enclosure around a newly planted perennial sage isn’t pretty, but you can remove it when the sage matures.
Another solution suggested by garden designer Rebecca Sweet is to surround a tempting plant with one that is well know in your locale as a deer deterrent. In her USDA Zone 9 yard, Sweet plants euphorbias (Euphorbia spp.) around the manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.) that deer like. Sweet, who lives in California, says that while the local deer love Black and Blue Sage, there are a number of species they ignore, including Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii).
So if one kind of sage seems yummy to your resident wildlife, perhaps you could try making it harder to reach by placing it in the center of another less tasty species. Black and Blue Sage may have a tough-sounding name, but it appears to be the sedate Winnifred Gilman Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii ‘Winnifred Gilman’) that fights off Bambi.