Chomping down on a rosette of freshly emerging tulip leaves is just the thing to drive away winter doldrums — for deer. Crocuses probably taste almost as good to them.
There’s no need, though, for us humans to forsake the blossoms of spring bulbs; there are plenty that don’t appeal to deer.
Daffodils, for example. Deer won’t eat them. So plant daffodils to your heart’s content without any worry that their tops will be chomped off before the flowers even unfold.
Hyacinths also don’t particularly appeal to deer. Although hyacinths were among the most fashionable flowers in the 18th century, they’re not among the most popular bulbs now. Perhaps it’s because they’re a little stiff and formal, so don’t blend well with currently popular naturalistic landscapes. Still, if you’ve got a place for them, go ahead and plant them and don’t worry about deer upsetting your design.
Equally deer proof and, in this case, easily integrated into naturalistic plantings, are grape hyacinths, or muscari. These tiny bulbs are impervious to cold, and spread to eventually blanket the ground with popsicle sticks packed with pure white, violet, or deep blue flowers.
Actually, once you segue over into the world of small bulbs, you open the door to a slew of flowers that both naturalize and are passed over by hungry deer. Some are also the first harbingers of spring: Snowdrop and glory of the snow often bloom right through the snow, the former with white blossoms, the latter in white, pink or blue. Each of winter aconite’s yellow blossoms, also appearing in very early spring, is cradled in hand-shaped leaves, decorative in their own right well after the blossoms dry up.
After this early show subsides, striped squill, also known as puschkinia, could share the stage with muscari, both blooming fairly early. The loose, pale blue clusters of striped squill won’t do for the garden what Darwin tulips do — or would do if the deer wouldn’t eat them — but they are welcome nonetheless.
Crown imperial is a deer-proof bulb that could provide the elegance of tulips. The stalks shoot skyward 2 to 3 feet and then are capped by a tuft of leaves encircled below by a “crown” of downward-pointing red or yellow flowers. Crown imperial’s relatives, Persian lily and guinea hen flower, are also passed over by deer and are beautiful in a more relaxed rather than regal manner.
English bluebells and wood hyacinth, both botanically squills, share midseason bloom with crown imperial. These two squills are perfect for naturalizing and brightening the dappled shade of a mid-spring woodland.
Even as spring rolls into summer, there are colorful bulbs that can make deer look elsewhere for a meal. Flowering onions — alliums — fill this time slot, mostly appearing as pastel pompoms atop slender stalks.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ornamental, flowering onions, take a look at chives when they come into bloom. Now imagine those blossoms in deep blue, or in pink, even yellow. And rather than golf-ball size clusters of flowers, imagine flower heads the size of volleyballs, or baseball-size clusters sending out thin streamers of male flowers like fireworks. These are some of the variations on the basic allium flower theme.
This sampling of bulbs should be sufficient to convince you that deer need not reduce your spring landscape to a monochrome of green. After once watching deer munch the leaves off a friend’s garlic plants, I do hesitate to recommend any plant as completely deer-proof. Still, planting the above-mentioned bulbs generally sends out the signal: No food here, deer.