September 19, 2015

1 - Many plants are suggested as rabbit resistant landscape plants, but few prove to be really rabbit resistant.

Yard and Garden September 19, 2015

Q.

We live on the East Mesa on 2 acres of mesquite dunes and salt bushes. There are many rabbits and they devour anything other than the native cactus and sage bushes. We have some oleander that they leave alone. We would like just a few decorative bushes close to the house that exhibit some color at least part of the year. Are there any rabbit-resistant bushes you could recommend? Someone said a butterfly bush might work.

Thomas H.

Las Cruces

A.

There have been a lot of discussions about rabbit resistant plants. These written and verbal discussions often result in contradictory comments. On the internet you may find that iceplant is rabbit resistant, but I have talked to people who have had iceplant devoured by rabbits and deer. Butterfly bush as you mentioned is another on the "resistant" lists, but when checking with rabbit owners, they say that their rabbits eat the butterfly bush plants with no apparent ill effect, even though there are reports that butterfly bush contains strychnine. However, it is a fact that while some plants more favored by rabbits, there are plants that rabbits will eat only in times of stress, during drought, or times of high population pressure and competition for food.

Some shrubs to try that are on the less favored lists would include Agastache, Caryopteris, Russian sage, lavender, lantana, rosemary, and catmint. These are shrubs with strong odors and potentially unpleasant flavors for rabbits, some have hairy leaves that discourage feeding by rabbits, and some are toxic. Never the less, there is no guarantee that they will be totally avoided by rabbits. In fact, they will probably be attacked some years. However, a characteristic of these plants and the butterfly bush is their ability to regrow from the roots after heavy browsing if the plants are otherwise health.

Your comment about your oleander plants caused me to consider another possibility - members of the Apocynaceae or dogbane family that have toxic alkaloids in their milky latex.

The oleanders may be avoided by rabbits because they are toxic and distasteful because of these alkaloids. Both Vinca and Catharanthus are members of the Apocynaceae. Vinca major and V. minor have beautiful evergreen leaves and deep blue flowers. These plants are perennial and will survive the winters. They are vines that may be trained on trellises or other structures to provide upward growth like shrubs. They may be subject to some winter desiccation (drying and leaf burn) and may need some protection during the winter. Catharanthus roseus is commonly grown as an annual flowering plant that may produce white flowers with a pink center, rose-colored, or purple flowers. They will not survive the winter in your location but may provide colorful flowers that are little bothered by rabbits because of their toxic nature. They can be replanted each year. The plants in the Apocynaceae and some other plants rely on their toxic nature to repel wildlife. It is interesting that some of the toxic alkaloids in the Apocynaceae providing protection in these plants are of interest to science as treatments for cancers.

Some other plants to consider for color and landscape interest that are not shrubs include ornamental onions, daylilies (regrow readily if eaten), Anemome (and toxic relatives Delphinium and Aconitum), Rudbeckia, and Echinacea (coarse hairs on the leaves, regrow readily after damage). Some fragrant, low-growing plants that may be helpful as groundcover plants around other plants to discourage rabbits from approaching the other plants include oregano, thyme, and prostate rosemary.

Any of these plants may prove unsuccessful as rabbit resistant plants in your landscape, but some may survive or even thrive. Plants that work well for other people may not succeed in your landscape and plants that do well in your landscape may not resist rabbits in other landscapes, but your experience may be helpful and encourage others who have given up on having a colorful landscape in rabbit country. Best wishes for success!

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: desertblooms@nmsu.edu, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.

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