Background Transcriptional profiling after herbivore attack reveals, at the molecular level, how plants respond to this type of biotic stress. Comparing herbivore-induced transcriptional responses of plants with different phenotypes provides insight into plant defense mechanisms. Here, we compare the global gene expression patterns induced by Pieris rapae caterpillar attack in two white cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata) cultivars. The two cultivars are shown to differ in their level of direct defense against caterpillar feeding. Because Brassica full genome microarrays are not yet available, 70-mer oligonucleotide microarrays based on the Arabidopsis thaliana genome were used for this non-model plant. Results The transcriptional responses of the two cultivars differed in timing as characterized by changes in their expression pattern after 24, 48 and 72 hours of caterpillar feeding. In addition, they also differed qualitatively. Surprisingly, of all genes induced at any time point, only one third was induced in both cultivars. Analyses of transcriptional responses after jasmonate treatment revealed that the difference in timing did not hold for the response to this phytohormone. Additionally, comparisons between Pieris rapae- and jasmonate-induced transcriptional responses showed that Pieris rapae induced more jasmonate-independent than jasmonate-dependent genes. Conclusion The present study clearly shows that global transcriptional responses in two cultivars of the same plant species in response to insect feeding can differ dramatically. Several of these differences involve genes that are known to have an impact on Pieris rapae performance and probably underlie different mechanisms of direct defense, present in the cultivars.