1. Leaves possess traits that mediate the preference and performance of herbivores. Most evidence for the importance of leaf traits as defences against herbivory comes from studies of few model plant species.
2. In a phylogenetically explicit comparison, I explain the differences in preference and performance of tussock moth (Orgyia vetusta Boisduval) larvae on leaves of 27 oak (Quercus) species using nine putative leaf defences.
3. The preference for an oak species correlated positively with the survival of caterpillars. The correlation between preference and performance did not differ between oak species native to the range of tussock moth versus those from outside the herbivore's range.
4. The first principal component of leaf traits predicted survival of caterpillars on oak leaves but only marginally predicted their preference between oak species. A multiple regression model showed that evergreenness, toughness, and condensed tannin content were the best predictors of caterpillar survival, and leaf toughness was the best predictor of host preference.
5. Generalist caterpillars may accurately assess the value of novel food sources. Moreover, many leaf traits that have been found to affect herbivory within a plant species can also be used to predict the fitness of a generalist herbivore between species.