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The best and most beautiful deer resistant ferns for your garden! Remember that no fern is ever completely deer resistant as deer will eat anything they can find when they’re starving. But when the foods deer like are plentiful, they’ll avoid those plants that are in some way icky, smelly, or spikey.
If you have deer in your area and want to plant a garden that is as deer resistant as possible, ferns are an excellent choice. Several ferns are deer-resistant, either because of their texture or a high level of toxicity.
In This Guide:
The Best Deer Resistant Ferns
Let’s take a look at beautiful deer resistant fern varieties!
1. Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)
The Northern maidenhair fern is a well-loved fern that spreads slowly but easily and is deer resistant. It looks like a classic fern at first, with fronds that have columns of blades on either side of a central stem, but it stands out among other ferns for having the fronds extend from a central base in a circular pattern.
These are relatively small plants, usually growing 1 to 1.5 feet tall and wide, although they can grow as tall as 3 feet and as wide as 2 feet.
These ferns are native to North America and tend to grow in the Midwest, Plains, East, and South. They are deciduous and hardy in zones 3 to 8. Their fronds will dry out, and the fern will go dormant in winter. But new growth starts quickly in spring, with purplish or burgundy fiddlehead stems pushing their way up before unfurling into new fronds.
This is also a good time to divide the fern’s rhizomes to help propagate the plant (which also releases spores later in the year). Plant the divisions to the same depth in a shady, moist but well-draining area. They’re pretty tolerant of most soil types and pH levels, and they need a medium amount of water.
These ferns look nice and green when healthy, and you’d think they’d be easy eating for deer. However, the fronds are not that firm, meaning their texture can be a little weird for deer. Deer don’t like plants that have odd textures.
What’s really keeping deer away, though, is the toxicity of the fern. Deer recognize which plants are not good to eat, and although starvation might drive a few to eat ferns, these aren’t preferred foods at all.
These ferns are terrific for borders and areas where you want to give smaller animals like frogs someplace to hide. They’re lovely around water features where the soil might be more moist than usual, but be sure they don’t end up in waterlogged soil.
2. Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina)
This genus of ferns is known for being particularly resistant to pests like rabbits, and it’s not a favorite of deer, either. Athyrium filix-femina specifically grows in a relatively upright pattern, with fronds clustered together. (As opposed to how maidenhair fern fronds tend to fall toward the ground in that round pattern).
The fronds have green blades on either side of a central stem and look “lacey,” which is used as a descriptor by multiple sources. The ferns can grow up to 3 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, and again, they spread via spores and through rhizome division. This species is found globally.
These ferns are great for areas that aren’t as moist as other ferns might like. However, the drier the soil, the less sun there should be. You can actually plant these in full sun, but the fern has to get plenty of moisture, and the soil, although it needs to be well-draining, should be sufficiently moist.
Save the planting in drier soil for when the planting site is partly shady and sheltered from winds and other harsh weather. You can plant these in zones 4 to 9. As with the Northern maidenhair fern, the fronds are toxic and can poison livestock. So, deer aren’t too thrilled to see them.
3. Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum)
This is a dense deciduous fern that has reen to grayish fronds with purplish stems and midribs. The color is striking and makes a nice contribution to gardens where you already have a lot of green. As the name indicates, this is a Japanese native fern, and it grows well in zones 5 to 8.
As you can guess, it too is a toxic fern as far as animals are concerned, just like other deer resistant ferns.
This is a fairly tiny fern, growing no more than 2 feet wide and tall, usually. This is a fern that you want to keep in shade or part shade, with constantly moist soil. It doesn’t like alkaline soils, but again, if you have an area that is wetter than normal despite good drainage, this is the fern you want to plant there.
4. Hay-Scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)
If you want a big fern, this is the one for you. Individual fronds can grow up to 1 foot wide, although the fern as a whole tends to stay under 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Blades are intricate and have hairy surfaces; deer hate fuzzy or hairy plants.
The fern is known for its haylike smell, especially when the fronds are dried. Fresh fronds are a lighter yellowish green than other ferns.
This fern grows well in zones 3 to 8 in states in the middle and eastern sections of the country. This fern is related to toxic ferns, but it’s not clear if hay-scented fern is toxic to deer or if the texture just turns them off.
Use this fern in borders as an individual plant (rather than a clump), and plant it in acid soil that is moist, well-draining, and in a shady to partly shady spot. Rocky soils are fine.
5. Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Here’s another big fern, but instead of wide fronds, you have tall fronds, with the plant growing to 5 or 6 feet tall and up to 8 feet wide, according to one source. Spore-bearing fronds emerge in late summer from the center of the plant; otherwise, the green fronds are often found growing relatively upright.
This fern may be toxic in that it can lead to vitamin deficiencies and other side effects for balance and sight. The ostrich fern prefers moist, acidic, shady soil, sheltered from the wind. Keep in zones 2 to 8; this fern does not like hot summers or a lot of humidity, despite its need for moisture.
6. Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
Just as the ostrich fern doesn’t like heat and humidity, the sensitive fern doesn’t like frost. It does grow in zones 4 to 9, but it needs to be protected from frost when cooler weather rolls around. It wants part shade to full shade and loves wet soils such as in bogs and next to water features that lead to wet soils, although waterlogged soils aren’t good.
The sensitive fern is kind of an oddball compared to the others. It has fronds, but the pina and pinnule of each frond look more like single-lobed, elongated leaves, and not the more lacey type of pinnules that you see on other ferns. It keeps to about 4 feet tall and wide.
Eating too much of the fern can lead to a thiamin deficiency in some animals.
7. Osmunda spp.
Osmunda ferns tend to grow to about 5 feet tall. Their roots are often used as peat for orchid potting, and they grow in zones 3 to 9, depending on the species.
Osmunda cinnamomea, or cinnamon fern, likes dappled shade and moist soil, but if you can place it somewhere where it will actually sit in water, you can place it in full sun. The fronds grow upward and form a loosely cylindrical clump. It’s an excellent choice for gardens with wet-soil problems.
Osmunda claytoniana, or interrupted fern, is a bit shorter, often growing to only 3 feet tall and wide. It can handle part shade but likes full shade and can even deal with very shady conditions. Give this wet, acidic soil if possible.
Osmunda regalis, or royal fern, is another wet-soil, rain-garden, shade-loving fern. It often grows wild in water along stream banks.
8. Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
A rare drought-tolerant fern that does OK in drier soils, the Christmas fern is evergreen and not deciduous. It tends to stay under 2 to 3 feet tall and grows well in zones 3 to 9.
This is a fern that you can plant in a rock garden, and oddly, deer really do not like this fern. Early, central fronds, tend to be more upright than later, outer fronds, which aren’t as stiff. This fern does well in most types of soil and most pH types as well.
We hope you’ve found a fern that’s perfect for your deer resistant garden! Keep reading with these deer articles: