Seedlings of Acer rubrum, Carpinus caroliniana, and Platanus occidentalis were germinated and grown under contrasting light regimes: varied light (59% of the abovecanopy photon flux incrementally decreased to 9%, simulating a forest understory during canopy leaf-out) and low light (constantly less than 10%, simulating an understory after leaf-out). By the time that light in both treatments was equilibrated at 9%, 44 days after the first germination, varied light plants were an order of magnitude larger than low light plants. However, in the remainder of the experiment, during which all plants were kept at 9% light, varied light plants had lower relative growth due to: 1) lower leaf area per unit of plant mass; and 2) lower net productivity per unit of leaf area. A subset of plants were flooded after light equilibration, resulting in reduced growth. Varied and low light plants were equally affected by flooding. Reported differences among species in shade tolerance were poorly correlated with differences in response to light treatment.