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Milkweed is a popular choice in pollinator-friendly gardens, providing food and habitat for the Monarch butterfly. But do deer eat milkweed plants, or are these beautiful wildflowers safe from visiting deer?

What Is Milkweed?

Monarch butterfly feeding on milkweed in Shenandoah National Park

Milkweed does not deserve its name, as this plant is anything but a weed! Milkweed is a tough native perennial wildflower now commonly cultivated in gardens.

Found in North American meadows, wetlands, and prairies, milkweed is grown in pollinator gardens as the sole food source for the majestic Monarch butterfly.

If you’ve ever seen a milkweed meadow in full flower swarming with Monarch butterflies, you will appreciate just how important this plant is!

Milkweeds are tall, elegant plants with wide leaves surrounding a thick, upright stem that produces ball-shaped clusters of small flowers.

Not only is milkweed vital for pollinators, but it also creates a fragrant floral display in the garden. Many varieties of milkweed are available, including common milkweed, swamp milkweed, and butterfly weed.

Swamp milkweed is good for damp conditions, while butterfly weed thrives in drier conditions. Common milkweed can be quite vigorous and may need to be kept in check to prevent it from taking over. 

Do Deer Eat Milkweed?

Baby White-Tailed Deer fawn walks through tall grass field with Milkweed

Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, lists both swamp milkweed and butterfly weed as ‘seldom severely damaged’. Unfortunately, no plant is deer-proof. Wandering deer may accidentally trample your plants, for example. Milkweed is not particularly palatable to deer and they prefer to browse on tastier plants instead.

Remember that a hungry deer will nibble on most plants, and milkweed may be a tempting snack when other food sources are scarce.

Conservationists have observed deer eating the flowers of milkweed plants, and they seem attracted to the sweet, floral scent that the plant produces to draw in pollinating insects.

Do Deer Eat Milkweed Plants?

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) flowers

The leaves and stems of milkweed plants have a sticky, milky sap, and deer tend to avoid these types of plants. Milkweed is also mildly toxic and can be harmful to deer if consumed in large amounts.

However, deer have a remarkable tolerance to toxic substances, and a few mouthfuls of milkweed are unlikely to cause any harm.

Reportedly, some deer have developed a taste for milkweed and will browse these plants as they pass through your garden. Whether deer eat milkweed or not will depend on your location and the type of deer that visit your property.

The toxicity levels of milkweed also vary according to the variety. With careful planning, selecting the right type of milkweed can help reduce the risk of them being eaten by deer.

Fun fact – the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly are also immune to the toxic sap of milkweed, and the leaves of this plant are their sole source of food. This gives the caterpillars a bitter taste that makes them distasteful to most predators!

Does Milkweed Repel Deer?

Although deer are not keen on eating milkweed, it is not repellent to deer. The scent of milkweed is attractive to pollinating insects, and this smell is pleasant rather than repellent to deer.

What Milkweed Is Deer Resistant?

If you plan on adding milkweed to your flower garden, choosing the right variety can help reduce the likelihood of deer nibbling your plants. Some types of milkweed are more deer resistant than others due to higher concentrations of toxins in the leaves.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Asclepias syriaca common milkweed

Common milkweed, the type found growing in the wild, has the lowest toxicity to deer. Hungry, passing deer will frequently take a nibble! They do not rely on common milkweed as a main food source. For that reason, a large patch can survive and thrive even if deer make a snack of it.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Monarch butterfly feeding on orange butterfly milkweed wildflowers

Butterfly weed is commonly cited as being deer resistant, but the sap of this variety is less caustic than other types of milkweed. Theoretically, this means that deer could eat butterfly weed in larger quantities, but they seldom seem to do so.

Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)

Showy Milkweed plant (Asclepias speciosa)

Will deer eat showy milkweed?

Showy milkweed is closely related to common milkweed but is a better choice for gardens as it is less invasive. No data is available to compare the levels of toxins in showy milkweed to other types of milkweed. However, it is widely reported to be toxic to pets and farm animals.

However, as we know, deer can eat things that many other mammals cannot! So, don’t be surprised if visiting deer take a few bites from your showy milkweed plants.

Orange Milkweed

Is orange milkweed deer resistant?

Orange milkweed is another name for butterfly weed, thanks to this beautiful plant’s vibrant orange clusters of flowers. Orange milkweed has moderate deer resistance, as they dislike the sticky, milky sap. The leaves are also mildly toxic to deer, although they can consume them in small amounts without any side effects.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Is swamp milkweed deer resistant?

Swamp milkweed is more resistant to deer than other varieties of this beneficial flowering plant. Swamp milkweed contains higher levels of toxins in the leaves and stem. This makes it less attractive to deer.

So, Swamp milkweed is a great choice for your deer-friendly flower garden! Plant it in a damp, shady place, and it will thrive, rewarding you with an abundance of tiny flowers covered in a cloud of beautiful butterflies.

Keep reading!

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