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Do deer eat elderberry? Elderberries are often considered deer-resistant plants. However, this isn’t foolproof. No plant is completely safe from a hungry deer that passes by, but the elderberry is far less likely to be tasty to deer than other choices such as grasses, vines, fruits, or nuts

After all, it’s not like a deer will read a “No Trespassing” sign. To deer, any plant is dinner if they are hungry or feel like munching on a leaf.

However, if deer find your elderberry plants quite delicious, it’s time to take action!

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about deer and elderberry plants. Follow these helpful tips for things you can do to keep your garden flourishing without harming deer in the process.

Do Deer Eat Elderberry Plants? 

Black elderberry shrub in fruit
Black elderberries on shrub

Some people will swear by the fact that elderberry plants are deer resistant. And, they are indeed listed as rarely or seldom severely damaged. The red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), in particular, is not a favorite food of deer.

But, don’t worry! You do not imagine or make up stories when you come out to the garden and find that your beautiful leaves and berries have bite marks or are completely gone. You may even notice the plant starting to wilt or stop growing.

Elderberry deer-resistance from Rutger’s University

The truth remains that if the animal finds the plant tasty, any deer will eat the berries and leaves on an elderberry bush. 

Deer are herbivores, meaning they prefer leaves, twigs, fruits and nuts, grass, corn, alfalfa, and sometimes lichens or other fungi. Herbivores only eat herbs, plants, and other plant-based food, including elderberry bushes, which means they may be attracted to the elderberry bush in hard times.

Do Deer Eat Black Lace Elderberry?

No, deer do not usually eat black lace elderberry. They may have a nibble in hard times when other food is hard to find, but elderberries are generally quite deer resistant.

Elderberry is one of the most productive and versatile plants in gardening. Only the blue or purple berries of elderberry are edible. Elderberry requires little care to grow to produce food, medicine, jams, wine, jellies, and tinctures. The plant also attracts butterflies.

Elderberry bushes come in several varieties. The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Cultivation Services lists the plant as Common Elderberry (Sambucus nigra L. ssp. Canadensis).

Some varieties include:

  • Adams, one of the most common in North America, Sambucus canadensis
  • Black Beauty, imported from Europe, S. nigra or ‘Gerda” offers a unique lemon scent.
  • Blue, native to the western United States and Mexico and sometimes confused with blueberries
  • Instant KarmaS. nigra is trademarked as Instant Karma and features variegated green and white foliage with dark purple fruit.
  • Lemony LaceS. racemosa ‘SMNSRD4’ is a hardy variety and features feathery, light-colored leaves, producing red fruits in the fall. Some experts caution against eating berries from S. racemosa cultivars, especially red berries.
  • YorkS. canadensis cultivar, has the largest berries with high fruit yield and is very resilient, tolerating the cold well.
  • Black LaceS. nigra, or ‘Eva,’ has dark leaves that look lacy and pink flowers. This variety requires a lot of moisture and is smaller than other bushes.

All elderberry plants are typically considered deer resistant, including Black Lace elderberry.

Are Elderberries Poisonous to Deer?

Sambucus racemosa or red elderberry bush with red berries
Sambucus racemosa (red elderberry bush)

Yes, elderberries are potentially poisonous to deer. Elderberry foliage and berries contain the cyanogenic toxin glycoside. However, the risk of developing cyanide poisoning is low in humans. Ruminant animals, like deer, may be more susceptible to developing cyanide poisoning. 

Toxicity: Leaves and raw berries contain sambunigrin, a glycoside that converts to cyanide ions during digestion, causing weakness, incoordination, labored respiration, seizures, and death. Cooking of berries removes toxins.

Soderstrom, Neil. Deer-Resistant Landscaping (p. 316). Harmony/Rodale.

How to Protect Elderberry Bushes From Deer

Protect your elderberry bushes from hungry deer by choosing one of the following deer-friendly options:

  • One option is to create a concoction of pungent herbs to deter but not harm deer. Mix thyme, oregano, and rosemary in warm water and apply to the ground by the elderberry bush. 
  • Or, plant these herbs nearby the bush. However, deer quickly adapt to smells, so alternate the scents from time to time.
  • During the early summer and fall, plant marigolds to help deter deer.
  • Or, try a natural repellent like Nature’s Mace.
  • For a permanent solution, put a fence around the elderberry bush.
  • Deer tend to prefer tender new growth, so consider surrounding new saplings with temporary fencing. Use netting, wire cages, fishing lines, tree shelters, or garden gates to save money on permanent fencing options.
  • Add another deterrent for best results. Perhaps use flashing lights along with a sound barrier to deter deer.

Verdict: Are Elderberry Plants Deer Resistant?

While elderberry plants have a reputation as being deer resistant, nothing is 100% guaranteed to prevent a deer from eating a plant if hungry. Remember, there’s no such thing as a completely deer resistant plant!

Choose one or more safe and natural deterrent options to keep your elderberry plants growing beautiful and to fruition while allowing the nearby deer to frolic unharmed, eating plants other than those in your garden.

Keep reading!

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