Although phosphorus has long been considered an important factor in the growth of diverse biota such as bacteria, algae, and zooplankton, insect nutrition has classically focused on dietary protein and energy content. However, research in elemental stoichiometry has suggested that primary producer biomass has similar N:P ratios in aquatic and terrestrial systems, and phosphorus-rich herbivores in freshwater systems frequently face phosphorus-limited nutritional conditions. Therefore, herbivorous insects should also be prone to phosphorus limitation. We tested this prediction by rearing Manduca sexta larvae on artificial and natural (Datura wrightii leaves) diets containing varying levels of phosphorus (approximately 0.20, 0.55, or 1.2% phosphorus by dry weight). For both artificial and natural diets, increased dietary phosphorus significantly increased growth rates and body phosphorus contents, and shortened the time to the final instar molt. Caterpillars did not consistently exhibit compensatory feeding for phosphorus on either type of diet. The growth and body phosphorus responses were not explicable by changes in amounts of potassium or calcium, which co-varied with phosphorus in the diets. Concentrations of phosphorus in D. wrightii leaves collected in the field varied over a range in which leaf phosphorus is predicted to affect M. sexta's growth rates. These results suggest that natural variation in dietary phosphorus is likely to affect the growth rate and population dynamics of M. sexta, and perhaps larval insects more generally. Arch. Insect Biochem. Physiol. 55:153–168, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.