Herbivory contributes substantially to plant functional diversity and in ways that move far beyond direct defence trait patterns, as effective growth strategies under herbivory require modification of multiple functional traits that are indirectly related to defence. In order to understand how herbivory has shaped plant functional diversity, we need to consider the physiology and architecture of the herbivores and how this constrains effective defence strategies. Here we consider herbivory by mammals in savanna communities that range from semi-arid to humid conditions. We posited that the saplings of savanna trees can be grouped into two contrasting defence strategies against mammals, namely architectural defence versus low nutrient defence. We provide a mechanistic explanation for these different strategies based on the fact that plants are under competing selection pressures to limit herbivore damage and outcompete neighbouring plants. Plant competitiveness depends on growth rate, itself a function of leaf mass fraction (LMF) and leaf nitrogen per unit mass (Nm). Architectural defence against vertebrates (which includes spinescence) limits herbivore access to plant leaf materials, and partly depends on leaf-size reduction, thereby compromising LMF. Low nutrient defence requires that leaf material is of insufficient nutrient value to support vertebrate metabolic requirements, which depends on low Nm. Thus there is an enforced tradeoff between LMF and Nm, leading to distinct trait suites for each defence strategy. We demonstrate this tradeoff by showing that numerous traits can be distinguished between 28 spinescent (architectural defenders) and non-spinescent (low nutrient defenders) of Fabaceae tree species from savannas, where mammalian herbivory is an important constraint on plant growth. Distributions of the strategies along an LMF-Nm tradeoff further provides a predictive and parsimonious explanation for the uneven distribution of spinescent and non-spinescent species across water and nutrient gradients.