Yesterday I stopped at one of my favorite local nurseries, Miller’s Greenery outside of Middlebury, and I was telling the Amish owner that I was picking up some deer-resistant items for my new shade garden.
I asked Mr. Miller about a certain perennial, and the conversation turned to what plants are the worst for deer damage—something that isn’t a problem in most of the Middlebury-Shipshewana area, but it’s a big problem up in the woods where I live. I told him that the three things the deer love best (and destroy) are hosta, arborvitae, and yews.
He was shocked! He said, “The deer like to eat yews?!” and I told him that they would destroy yews—eating off all the green needles and leaving the branches stripped. My neighbor across the street planted a dozen last fall, and the deer munched on them all winter long! We call yews, arborvitae, and hosta “deer candy,” and they don’t stand a chance in my neighborhood for anyone who lives along the deer paths like we do.
Mr. Miller said, “But yews are deadly poisonous to horses and cattle! How can they be so tasty to deer?” We both were very puzzled about that—but nevertheless, it’s true.
I did a little research later, and found this on The Poison Garden website: “Though toxic to most animals, deer do graze on yew and gardeners are advised to avoid growing yew if there is a possibility of deer getting into the garden, because it is a favorite food.”
And this from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture website: “The needles and seeds of all yews are highly poisonous to horses, cattle, sheep and goats... Wild deer, moose and elk browse on yews as winter food and are not affected by the yew toxin. Humans, particularly children, are also susceptible to the toxins in these plants.” This website also said that for a 1,000-pound horse, as little half a pound of yew needles can be fatal!
Mr. Miller told me an awful story. One of his Amish acquaintances rented a house from his father-in-law. In an effort to clean up the place, he trimmed back the overgrown yews, and he threw the trimmings into his father-in-law’s nearby cattle pasture. The cows ate the yew clippings and died! When Mr. Miller saw the poor man at the bank some time later; the man was taking out a bank loan to repay his father-in-law for the dead cattle!