Preventing deer damage to trees, non-poisonous poinsettias, and identifying voles

In-town deer have become quite tame, Don Kinzler says, and that can mean severe injuries to plants — but there are steps you can take to help prevent the problem.

A reader wonders what caused this damage to their Tower poplars. Special to The Forum

Q: We just noticed this damage to our Tower poplars, shown in the photo. The damage is about 3 feet up from the ground. What caused this? We live in south Fargo. — Shellie U.

A: Have you seen deer in your yard? The markings on the tree look suspiciously like the damage caused by the antlers of a buck deer. Deer are frequently known to rub their antlers on tree trunks in the fall, and the lines and scars on the trunk look very much like the scars left by antler points.

Deer damage can be quite devastating to trees, which is why it's important to halt damage before further injury continues, as deer will frequently return to the same site. You might wrap chicken wire temporarily around the tree trunk, and remove in spring. Such wrapping will usually interfere with the deer's ability to rub their horns. Deer repellents are occasionally successful, and the three with the best track records are Liquid Fence, Plantskydd and Deer Away.

Shellie replied, “We have seen deer in our yard previous winters and this fall we saw deer droppings. It seems strange that they would linger long enough in our yard to rub their antlers on the trees.”

Urban deer have become quite tame, and damage from antler rubbing and feeding have unfortunately become common. Human scent is no deterrent for in-town deer, who have become accustomed to a smorgasbord of fine dining.


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Q: I remember for so many years poinsettias were considered poisonous, and we were cautioned to keep kids and pets away. Now I see articles that say they aren’t toxic. What happened to change them from being poisonous to non-poisonous? — Linda B.

A: My wonderful colleague, North Dakota State University Extension Horticulturist Esther McGinnis, describes the situation well in a recent article. “Poinsettia’s reputation as a fatal beauty stems from the unconfirmed 1919 death of a 2-year-old in Hawaii. The unlucky toddler was widely believed to have nibbled on a single leaf. Thus, a longstanding old wives’ tale was born.

"In 1971, Ohio State University researchers sought to determine the plant’s toxicity level by feeding rats a highly concentrated solution made from ground-up poinsettia parts. The solution was the equivalent of feeding 500 leaves to a 50-pound child. Despite the highly potent solution, not a single rat died. In fact, the rats did not get sick at all and continued to have normal appetites.

"While poinsettias are not highly toxic, consuming leaves can cause mild digestive upset in children and pets. In addition, the milky sap can cause skin irritation for those individuals allergic to latex. Poinsettia is related to the para rubber tree, a natural source of latex rubber."

Q: My daughter-in-law in West Fargo loves watching wildlife so she has bird feeders which in turn draw all kinds of birds and animals. Just recently she noticed a black mouse-like creature near her feeders and buildings. Do you know what this might be? I’ve checked the guide for small mammals in the state and can’t come up with anything. — Larry R.

A: From your description, the mice-like creatures are probably voles, which are also known as field mice or meadow mice. Voles have very short tails, small black eyes, a rounded blunt snout and vary in color from medium brown to brownish-black. They are usually chubby, and don’t run as fast as house mice, which are gray in color with much longer tails.

Voles are on a cyclical high around the region, and their damage is very visible on the lawn in spring when snow melts. Voles are notorious for causing winding surface channels through the turf as they consume grass under the cover of snow. They also girdle trees and shrubs at ground level.


Voles can be controlled by mouse traps baited with peanut butter, placing rodent baits inside PVC pipe bait stations or excluding from trees with quarter-inch wire mesh hardware cloth.

If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler, NDSU Extension-Cass County, at Questions with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.

Don Kinzler column mug.jpg
Don Kinzler, "Growing Together" and "Fielding Questions" columnist.

Don Kinzler column mug.jpg
Don Kinzler, "Growing Together" and "Fielding Questions" columnist.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at
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