One thing’s for sure – there’s no room for snobbery when it comes to gardening.
Before moving to this house 2 ½ years ago I used to smile politely when clients mentioned they had a deer problem and gave my all-knowing benevolent nod while saying “Ah yes, deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough you know…..”. I swear if anyone says that to me any more I’ll scream! Yes I do know – and I apologize to all those whom I have insulted with this inane platitude in the past. I still say the only reliable thing about deer is that they read the price tags, but I now have a much better appreciation of the problems they cause and a vested interest in researching plants which have been proven, at least here in the Pacific Northwest as ‘seldom damaged’ by deer.
One group of shrubs which I never really appreciated before were spirea. In England the old variety ‘Anthony Waterer’ (Spiraea x bumalda 'Anthony Waterer') was so overused that I lost interest in it. Yet moving here I noticed three huge, well established bushes thriving in my deer prone garden; reason enough to take a fresh look at the options. Here are a few of my favorites which are all reliably deer resistant, take full sun or partial shade and are ridiculously easy care.
Renaissance spirea (Spiraea x vanhouttei 'Renaissance'). This graceful, deciduous shrub features a massive display of pure white flowers and colorful orange-red fall color and offers improved disease resistance over older varieties. 5-6’ tall and wide, this is a flower arrangers favorite. Water regularly. Zones 3-7
For fabulous foliage my favorite has to be ‘Mellow yellow’ spirea, also known as ‘Ogon’(S. thunbergii ‘Ogon’). The feathery foliage is reminiscent of the finely dissected bluebeard (Caryopteris) leaf except this is a bright shade of yellow-gold. Even if it didn’t bloom I would love it but the white flowers which dot its arching stems in April and May add an appealing freshness. Left to their own devices these shrubs become soft billowing bushes 5’ tall and wide. I have planted the dark leaved ‘Midnight wine’ Weigela in front for contrast, with a swathe of evergreen Rhododendrons off to one side. I am already thinking of other parts of the garden to add a cluster to. Hardy in zones 5-8.
Double Play® Big Bang Spirea (Spiraea japonica 'Tracy') –I have a group of these planted near my paperbark maple (Acer griseum) where the peeling cinnamon tree bark plays off the warm sunset tones of the spirea. The spirea foliage opens golden with orange overtones and shows rosy new growth before turning a fresh shade of summer green which acts as a foil to the tufty pink flowers. This variety offers the largest flowers of all and should be a butterfly magnet this summer. 2-3’ tall and wide and is hardy in zones 4-9.
For those who insist on a chartreuse variety of every plant then I suggest spirea ‘Limemound’. (Spiraea x bumalda 'Monhub'). The foliage opens yellow and softens to lime green before turning orange in fall. A good filler shrub for the mixed border where a compact 3’ dome is needed. Zones 3-9
My garden should have wheels according to my husband, who invariably has the task of heaving huge trees, shrubs and pots “just a few inches to the left”. On one such recent occasion, after hauling a 4’ “heap of twigs” from one side of the path to the other, I discovered several rooted cuttings left behind. I dug them up and planted them in an area of nasty, clay soil by the stream – and the cuttings have taken! (My husband is hoping they can live happily there as he’ll have to don waders if they need moving again). As far as I can tell this “heap of twigs” is just Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica) with no particular claim to royal heritage. I include it simply to make the point that although of humble birth and lacking the jazzy colors or supersized flowers of others mentioned here, this really is a first class shrub.
Spirea – tolerant of most soil conditions, dozens of named cultivars and varieties all of which are ignored by deer and rabbits, easily propagated (i.e. free plants if you want them), foliage in shades of green, lime, orange, and dusky purple, flowers in white or pink, beloved by bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds and ranging in height from 1’ to 6’ tall – I’m sure you have room for a few. No garden snobs here!
UPDATE! Both my books, Fine Foliage (St. Lynn's Press, 2013) and Gardening with Foliage First (Timber Press, 2017) feature LOTS of combination ideas for spirea. Check them out! (These affiliate links will save YOU money and earn me a few pennies towards my next must-have spirea :))