Plant volatiles play important roles in signalling between plants and insects, but their role in communication among plants remains controversial. Previous research on plant–plant communication has focused on interactions between neighbouring plants, largely overlooking the possibility that volatiles function as signals within plants. Here, we show that volatiles released by herbivore-wounded leaves of hybrid poplar (Populus deltoides × nigra) prime defences in adjacent leaves with little or no vascular connection to the wounded leaves. Undamaged leaves exposed to volatiles from wounded leaves on the same stem had elevated defensive responses to feeding by gypsy moth larvae (Lymantria dispar L.) compared with leaves that did not receive volatiles. Volatile signals may facilitate systemic responses to localized herbivory even when the transmission of internal signals is constrained by vascular connectivity. Self-signalling via volatiles is consistent with the short distances over which plant response to airborne cues has been observed to occur and has apparent benefits for emitting plants, suggesting that within-plant signalling may have equal or greater ecological significance than signalling between plants.