Rhododendron deer damage

joel_bc(z6 BC)December 19, 2004

Hi. We just discovered that one of our rhododendrons has been severely damaged by a wandering deer (we found the tracks in the snow). About 75% of this young plant's leaves and leaf stems were eaten. The plant was bought from a nursery two years ago, and it was not large yet. It had not yet produced blooms.

I liked it because it was a stocky variety that had a good foliage-to-branch ratio - the nurseryman said it was field grown, so had not become leggy searching for sunlight.

My question is: can this plant recover without becoming leggy? How likely is it to put out buds and new leaves lower on the existing branches, or will most or all new green development occur at the ends of the branches?

I rather dislike spindly rhododendrons. And I've seen many of those, both natural (wild) and cultivated.

Thanks for your opinions.


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morz8(Washington Coast Z8b)

Hi Joel...I've never had a deer touch a rhododendron here, although often read of them causing damage to both rhododendrons and azaleas on the E coast. (You may want to find a way to protect this plant on the chance it wasn't just one deer on one day it appealed to.)

If you rhody did set buds for flowers this coming Spring, it sounds like the deer enjoyed them, and you wont. The good news is, you can easily shape your young plant to the desired full form that appeals to you.

In Spring, you'll want to remove anything deer damaged as needed.

Then to begin to train your plant -By pinching or breaking out leaf buds in the first few years of growth, you can shape a potentially leggy plant into something more well balanced. In order to encourage branches to form, pinch terminal leaf buds...not the round, fat, blunt-tipped flower buds. Do this as growth begins to elongate the buds in Spring. This will force shoots to develop from dormant eyes in the lower leaf axils. A plant hormone is produced by leaf buds which inhibits development of dormant buds along the stems, flower buds do not produce this hormone (so easy to let your plant bloom, catch the leaf buds as they begin to elongate, remove those before they can open)

If you continue this pinching procedure after each growth cycle for the next two or three years, you should have a well filled-out shrub that will produce many more flower buds than one of the same age left to it's own devices.

After this initial training, your rhododendrons basic structure is established. Occasionally you will need to pinch leaf buds which would grow to unbalance the plant, but since healthy rhododendrons produce more terminal flower buds and less terminal leaf buds as they grow older, your pinching duties will steadily decrease.

    Bookmark   December 19, 2004 at 6:00PM
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Damaged rhodies will resprout from those dormant leaf buds lower down the branches, not just from the ends, because the deer ate the branch ends, as long as the plant had enough root system to not die. Your plant may end up bushier after the deer pruning if it survives. As Morz8 said, you want to protect this plant for the rest of this winter and other winters, preferably with a physical barrier. From what others have posted, once a deer has found something good, it will return, and even the nasty-tasting sprays won't keep them away if they are humgry enough.

    Bookmark   December 20, 2004 at 6:23AM
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joel_bc(z6 BC)

Thank you, both. That's good news. The poor plant looks pitiful now. But I do believe the root system got well established in the first couple years. I put it in good, acid soil and gave it good care and watering - plus, when I got it from the nursery, the root system looked pretty decent out of the pot.

Lower leaf buds must be *very* dormant. I looked at the bush and only saw sickeningly extensive devourment - absent leaves and petioles! To be truthful, I was a little too angry to do a close inspection and see those dormant buds. I'll look today.

I covered the bush yesterday with burlap. Snow will soon blanket that, so I doubt the deer will get to it again. Actually, I could make a fence-wire (2"-mesh) cylindrical fence right around it. But I'd guess the burlap will do the trick.



    Bookmark   December 20, 2004 at 12:17PM
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Joel - I'm not sure how much snow you get in BC, or how heavy and wet it is. We sometimes get three or four feet, and then get spring rains on top of that. If plants had burlap over them withut a frame supporting them, the weight of the wet snow could cause broken branches. So I guess I'm saying that if you get lots of heavy snow at any point in the year you might want to use that wire framework.

Also, we had some rhodies that we rescued from the dump in tough shape (to say nothing of the one that my DH ran over with a brushhog). The dormant buds on the branches were REALLY dormant, basically invisible. They sprouted just fine in the spring, so don't worry if you don't see any and it takes a few weeks in the spring. They start out as tiny reddish dots when they begin sprouting.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2004 at 6:36AM
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waplummer(Z5 NY)

Not all Rhododendron or Mountain Laurel will recover from heavy deer browsing. I have lost several. One that I did not lose has foliage above six feet and is putting out foliage from the base, so now it is a two-tiered plant.

    Bookmark   December 27, 2004 at 8:10PM
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joel_bc(z6 BC)

Hi, I'm following MorZ8's optimistic advice and accepting the words of encouragement. Fingers crossed. At this point (after an early snow-melt, but return to often cooler and cloudier conditions for over a month), leaf buds are just beginning to appear on my beleaguered rhoddie.

We'll see what happens, and I can report here. May be of interest to others whose lovely shrub meets with an accident.


    Bookmark   April 28, 2005 at 12:18PM
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reg_pnw7(WA 7, sunset 4)

Deer pruning often results in a nice bushy plant. Except when they go after arborvitae, they turn those into lollipops, eating what they can reach and leaving the tops.

Rhodies often sprout from what looks like totally bare brown wood. They're very good about sprouting from wherever you happen to want to cut them back to, like a boxwood, and unlike a lot of other woody plants. Around here people routinely take a too-tall monster rhodie and cut it down to the ground almost to rejuvenate it. They usually will resprout from the stump. A bit extreme but it should give you hope.

Some species and varieties are naturally leggy, like our native rhodies here in the PNW are naturally leggy. Part of that is whether they're 1yr or 2 yr or 3 yr rhodies - how long they hold an individual leaf before dropping it. Each species and variety is either a 1 or 2 or 3 yr type. The wild rhodies I see growing in the mountains appear to be 2 yr rhodies which tends to leave them bare at the bases. Also they drop the bottom leaves if they're in dry or lean soil, only so much water and nutrients to go around so they sacrifice the oldest leaves.

Cool and cloudy is just what your rhodie wants if it's trying to replace lost leaves with a immature root ball! I think it'll be fine. Deer don't normally eat rhodies but there's always a dumb one that doesn't know any better, or a starving one that's desperate. It won't necessarily be repeated.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2005 at 7:22PM
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joel_bc(z6 BC)

Thanks, Reg. It does give me hope. It helps!


    Bookmark   April 28, 2005 at 8:55PM
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I read your posting with interest as I planted my first rhododendron last spring covered with purple flowers. We enjoyed it all summer, but sometime early in the winter the deer got to it as well as the azalea I planted. I was so disappointed. My only hope was a leaf or two missed near the bottom of the plant, but the deer ate every other leaf and all the flower buds. A friend told me that if it survives I will not have any flowers this year, but I'm now seeing what looks like flower buds. Are these really just leaves? Will I have to wait till next year to see flowers?

    Bookmark   May 10, 2008 at 10:44AM
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