The molecular genetic basis of adaptive variation is of fundamental importance for evolutionary dynamics, but is still poorly known. Only in very few cases has the relationship between genetic variation at the molecular level, phenotype and function been established in natural populations. We examined the functional significance and genetic basis of a polymorphism in production of leaf hairs, trichomes, in the perennial herb Arabidopsis lyrata. Earlier studies suggested that trichome production is subject to divergent selection. Here we show that the production of trichomes is correlated with reduced damage from insect herbivores in natural populations, and using statistical methods developed for medical genetics we document an association between loss of trichome production and mutations in the regulatory gene GLABROUS1. Sequence data suggest that independent mutations in this regulatory gene have provided the basis for parallel evolution of reduced resistance to insect herbivores in different populations of A. lyrata and in the closely related Arabidopsis thaliana. The results show that candidate genes identified in model organisms provide a valuable starting point for analysis of the genetic basis of phenotypic variation in natural populations.