Thom Smith: Protecting wildflowers from hungry deer


As a youngster walking in the woods with older relatives, I wrongly learned that many of the flowers we saw were "against the law to pick."

I don't recall if the term "protected" was ever used or just when it became in vogue. Wildflowers such as the wake-robin or purple trillium, pink lady slipper and the Jack-in-the pulpit were not to be picked; violets were OK. And while this was, and remains, just fine with me and the conservation community, this particular species of trillium and the Jack-in-the pulpit were never protected, while some vague law may have long ago protected the pink lady slipper (ladyslipper, lady's slipper), the most common of its clan. Today, the lesser yellow and the showy lady slipper are protected in Massachusetts (neither are listed as protected in Vermont).

In many instances, dramatic changes in habitat -- like clear cutting, or erecting houses in pristine woodlands -- are of far more concern than picking a flower here and there, although I condone neither. But some dramatic changes in habitat can be considered natural, like the sometimes burgeoning numbers of deer browsing their way through once common wildflowers.

It is common knowledge that deer are browsers, lesser known is that they are generalists, seeking out the most nutritious plants available, while in the best of times they become more selective and prefer some plants over others, the pink, yellow and showy lady slipper, for instance. Even American ginseng's present rarity can be attributed to deer in addition to overzealous gentlemen collectors. Plants of the lily family are also relished, as well as jewelweed (touch-me-not), providing an important food source for migrating hummingbirds later in the summer. Low-bush blueberry and blackberry are also favored, while deer avoid garlic mustard, an invasive I wrote about in last week's Naturewatch. Other avoided invasive plants include Japanese barberry, glossy buckthorn and black swallow-wort.

Having visited several of the larger white cedar swamps in Massachusetts, I have often wondered why there are so few saplings. Could it be the same reason so few manage to survive the browsing white-tailed deer at the Great Cedar Swamp in Westborough?

Less these comments place all the blame on deer for plants becoming endangered, there are numerous plants either threatened or endangered in the northeast that deer avoid almost entirely -- grasses and sedges, for example. The exact impact deer have on local biodiversity has yet to be fully documented, but evidence is mounting. And the carefully attended ornamentals growing about our residences are increasingly in peril from incursions by deer.

"Some would say that finding solutions to the dilemma of white-tailed deer over-abundance has emerged as the nation's single greatest wildlife-management -- and ecosystem-management -- challenge for the 21st century," according to Tom Rawinski, a U.S. Forest Service botanist.

For more information, look up Massachusetts Wildlife No. 1, 2010, at your library and read "Deer and Forests, and the People Who Love Them" by Rawinski, or read online at

Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email


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