Long-lived trees experience different levels of damage due to mammalian herbivores. To untangle the mechanisms that underlie this variation, we combined chemical with dendrochronological analyses to study variation in browsing on Western redcedars (Thuja plicata) on Haida Gwaii (British Columbia, Canada). Since the last glaciation, Haida Gwaii forests had lacked large herbivore browser until Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century. Dendrochronology yielded information on radial growth and plant annual responses to environmental stresses including herbivory. Secondary metabolite content and plant nutritional quality provided insights into proximate causes of food choices made by herbivores. We sampled lightly- and heavily-browsed young trees at four sites: three clear-cut sites with high browsing pressure and one old-growth forest site where browsing pressure had, until recently, been lower. Heavily-browsed young trees had lower concentrations of secondary metabolites and were of lower nutritive value than lightly-browsed trees at all sites. Under high browsing pressure, tree growth patterns suggested that all young trees were initially severely browsed until some trees, currently scored as lightly-browsed, started to escape deer. At the old-growth site, both lightly- and heavily-browsed trees tended to have lower overall average secondary metabolite concentrations than those of all other sites, a trend possibly related to greater canopy closure. Lightly-browsed trees were older than heavily-browsed ones which resulted, during the period of lower browsing pressure, in higher growth rate and a same pattern of change in growth from one year to the next year. This suggests that, under low browsing pressure, selection of young trees related to chemical defense was weak and that growth differences due to other factors than browsing could be expressed. Under strong browsing pressure, however, all young trees had equally low growth rates until trees with better genetic potential to produce effective defenses were able to escape deer. This suggests that selection by deer could occur on a long-lived tree.