Plant pathogens affect the fitness of their hosts and maintain biodiversity. However, we lack theories to predict the type and intensity of infections in wild plants. Here we demonstrate using fungal pathogens of tropical plants that an examination of the life histories of hosts and pathogens can reveal general patterns in their interactions. Fungal infections were more commonly reported for light-demanding than for shade-tolerant species and for evergreen rather than for deciduous hosts. Both patterns are consistent with classical defence theory, which predicts lower resistance in fast-growing species and suggests that the deciduous habit can reduce enemy populations. In our literature survey, necrotrophs were found mainly to infect shade-tolerant woody species whereas biotrophs dominated in light-demanding herbaceous hosts. Far-red signalling and its inhibitory effects on jasmonic acid signalling are likely to explain this phenomenon. Multiple changes between the necrotrophic and the symptomless endophytic lifestyle at the ecological and evolutionary scale indicate that endophytes should be considered when trying to understand large-scale patterns in the fungal infections of plants. Combining knowledge about the molecular mechanisms of pathogen resistance with classical defence theory enables the formulation of testable predictions concerning general patterns in the infections of wild plants by fungal pathogens.