Q: A neighbor told me that this damage to a cherry tree is caused by male deer leaving their calling cards for does. Do you think they will survive?
A: A week after getting a severe sunburn, my skin dries and begins to feel itchy. I compulsively peel the dead skin away to give myself some relief.
A male deer grows new antlers each year. The growing antlers are covered with a brown fuzzy skin called “velvet”. The velvet contains nerves and blood vessels that initially nourish the antlers.
Once the antlers have hardened in late summer, the velvet dries up and, I imagine, becomes itchy to the buck. They will vigorously scrape against any vertical surface to get the irritating stuff off.
Unfortunately, sometimes their rubbing surface is a prized sapling like yours. The cherries have been severely damaged because the scraping wounds look to be nearly all the way around the trunk. This girdled the trunk, interrupting the flow of water up to the leaves through the cambium layer.
My bet is that the trees will die in the next year and will need to be replaced.
If the damage were not so severe, I’d tell you to use a razor knife to trim loose bark around the wound and hope for the best.
When you plant new trees, drive four 6′ lengths of steel rebar two feet into the ground equidistantly around the trunk of each tree, thus surrounding it with a square approximately a foot away from the trunk. Wrap the rebar with chicken wire, using steel wire to keep it in place. Deer will be able to rub on the rough chicken wire without damaging the trunks of your trees.
While deer do use their noses to find and attract mates, rubbed trees are not usually part of their marking system.