Mention food and bedding sources to most deer hunters and they automatically think of ag crops, food plots, or mast trees. But, if you want to benefit and hold deer on your property all year, native shrubs are perhaps the most important food group on your farm.
Shrubs provide browse, berries and mast on a nearly year-round basis. Good, low cover provides a hiding place and shelter to spring fawns, protecting them from predators. Most midwestern farms will already have some of the shrubs on this list. Encourage them by clearing non-native or invasive plants from around the desired shrubs. Fertilizing encourages growth and mast/berry production, too.
Many shrub seedlings can be purchased from native plant nurseries or through your local Ag offices. The following native shrubs are common throughout the midwestern United States. Plant them along field and food plot borders for year-round browse and to provide edge feathering cover for deer moving in and out of the plot.
Commonly called American filbert or hazelnut, this native, deciduous, rounded, multi-stemmed shrub typically grows 8 to 16 feet tall and occurs most often in thickets, woodlands and wood margins, valleys, uplands and prairies. In spring, male flowers appear in showy, 2 to 3 inches long, yellowish-brown catkins and female flowers appear in small, reddish, inconspicuous catkins. Female flowers give way to small, egg-shaped, ½-inch long, edible nuts (maturing July to August) which are encased in leafy, husk-like, ragged-edged bracts. The hazelnut has ovate, double-toothed, dark green leaves (3 to 6 inches long). Fall color is quite variable, ranging from attractive combinations of orange, rose, purplish-red, yellow and green to dull yellowish green.
This nut-bearing native shrub provides cover, browse and hard mast that deer love. Hazelnuts prefer medium shade to full sun. While they prefer a well-drained loam, they still grow well in clay soil. Hazelnuts provide lots of tender browse in the spring and early summer, then edible mast in the fall. Unlike many mast-bearing trees, hazelnuts start to produce within a few years of planting, making them a valuable addition to farms with little to no browse or other food sources.
American beautyberry most often grows 3 to 5 feet tall and usually just as wide. It can reach 9 feet in height in favorable soil and moisture conditions. The shrub has long, arching branches and yellow-green fall foliage, but its most striking feature is the clusters of glossy, iridescent-purple fruit (sometimes white) which hugs the branches at leaf axils in the fall and winter. Bark is light brown on the older wood, reddish brown on younger wood.
Deer love the purple berries when they ripen in late fall. Clusters of beautyberry can be hotspots for deer soon after the first frost or two in the fall. Keep close watch on them, though. The berries won’t last long once they ripen. Besides the deer, just about every animal in the woods will beat a path to ripe beautyberries.
Young tender spring growth is attractive to the deer as well, and comes on at a time when other food sources can be scarce.
The wild, or American, plum is another native shrub that fits the bill as both cover and food. Often growing in dense clusters, this large shrub suckers freely and spreads well on its own. It is a woodland or prairie species and grows in a wide variety of soils (rocky to sandy; pH 5.5 to 7.5) along fencerows, wooded draws, riparian areas, and forest edges. The leaves are simple, oval, alternate, about 4 inches long, and have finely toothed edges. In autumn, they turn a brilliant yellow to red.
Wild plum foliage is highly digestible to deer, providing a near season-long food source. The plum shines in late summer and early fall when it’s sweet and high-energy fruit ripens.
While cultivated varieties of crabapples will often outperform wild varieties, when it comes to fruit production, wild crabapples provide better cover due to their dense growth habit and sharp thorns. Wild, or Prairie Crabapples provide a digestible browse in early spring, then fruit in late fall. Sometimes fruit might be passed over while it is on the tree in favor of other food sources that ripen about the same time; but the fruit falls to the ground and persists long into the winter — providing an important high-energy food source in the late season when food can be scarce.
Also known as Douglas hawthorn, river hawthorn, western thorn apple, and Douglas thorn tree, it is a thorny deciduous shrub or small tree up to 30 feet in height. It may have multiple stems from the base or a single stem that begins branching just above the ground. The bark of older stems is smooth to scaly and gray to brown; twigs are hairless, shiny, slender, reddish, and support stout, slightly curved spines up to an inch long.
Hawthorn grows in dense thickets, providing excellent cover for deer. The new growth is edible as browse, and the fruit ripens in late fall, providing food for deer and other wildlife into the winter.
Blackhaw is a large, upright, multi-stemmed, densely twiggy deciduous shrub that can be pruned to grow as a small tree. Creamy white flowers in flat-topped clusters to 4 ½ inches across appear in spring. Flowers provide nectar for butterflies, native bees and other pollinators. Flowers give way to blue-black, berry-like fruits, which are a good source of food for deer and other wildlife in fall and early winter.
While the blackhaw does produce edible fruit in fall and early winter, the main benefit of this shrub is as a browse and cover plant.
Not to be confused with the invasive and less valuable common buckthorn, Carolina buckthorn is a large perennial shrub or small tree occurring in the understories of forests, drainages and stream bottoms. This browse plant has large leaves and showy red (immature) and black (mature) fruit. While the fruit is edible, this is another shrub consumed mainly as browse by whitetail deer. You can differentiate Carolina buckthorn from the less desirable common variety by the leaves, Carolina has a longer, shinier leaf than the shorter, duller common, and by the lack of thorns on the Carolina variety.
Blackberries are often overlooked when it comes to shrubs that benefit white-tailed deer. Every outdoorsman is probably familiar with the blackberry’s thorny stem and sweet fruit. Their thorny exterior and dense growth pattern provide excellent cover along field or timber edges, ideal for hiding and protecting young fawns. Despite the thorns, the young shoots and leaves do provide a valuable browse source for deer.
The mid- to late-summer ripening fruit is greedily consumed by whitetails. The fruit is high in sugar and energy, perfect as a food source for lactating does.
More of a small tree than a shrub, the persimmon grows along understory edges. While the bare stalks of the persimmon don’t provide much in the way of bedding cover, they can be a valuable food source.
Although deer browse the leaves and twigs of the common persimmon, the tree’s greatest benefit to deer and other wildlife comes from its orange, oval fruit. This colorful fruit is about the diameter of a quarter and is high in carbohydrates, starches, iron, potassium, sugar, and vitamin C. The fruit ripens on the tree after the first frost, so in the fall, it is a high energy source for deer that helps them build body reserves for the winter. Ripe persimmons start dropping during September in northern states and in late October or November in the South, just in time for early bow season.
When persimmon trees loaded with fruit are located, keep a close watch on them as the season progresses. Soon after the first frost in the upper Midwest, the bulk of the fruit will fall seemingly overnight. When they do, every animal in the woods will flock to the tree. Your window for hunting ripe persimmons is short, but their strong draw can provide some hot action for a day or two each season.