The induction of carbon-based secondary metabolites in leaves following damage has been proposed to be a result of a shift in the carbon:nutrient balance, when growth is limited by nutrients in relation to carbon. Here we test this hypothesis using seedlings of a tropical tree, Shorea leprosula (Dipterocarpaceae). In the short term, we analysed the phenolic content of leaves 7 d after damage on seedlings grown under differing light and nutrient treatments. In the long term, we examined the effect of nutrients, over 12 mo, on leaf phenolic concentration and seedling growth. In both the long and short term, levels of phenolics increased in damaged leaves under low nutrient treatments. No changes in leaf phenolics were detected under high nutrient regimes, or in the short term under low light. In addition, it was found that defoliation of seedlings in high-nutrient environments led to greater rates of leaf production than in undamaged seedlings, suggesting compensation.