• Dipterocarpus;
  • leaf nitrogen;
  • Mesua;
  • photosynthesis;
  • Shorea;
  • Sri Lanka;
  • stomatal conductivity;
  • succession;
  • tropical rain forest;
  • water use

This study builds upon past work investigating seedling leaf physiology and structure among tropical trees. We seek to explain how related and unrelated species and genera co-occur in relation to varying amounts of shade. Seedlings of eight Sri Lankan rain forest tree species in three genera (Dipterocarpus, Mesua, Shorea section Doona) were grown for 2 years in four treatments that simulated a variety of shade environments across the understorey of a rain forest. All three genera comprise major canopy tree species of mixed dipterocarp forest, a widespread and important Asian tropical forest type. Compared with the other genera, Dipterocarpus spp. had the largest leaves, the thinnest leaf blades and relatively high rates of stomatal conductivity across all shade treatments, making them water-loving species sensitive to droughty soils. Mesua spp. had intermediate sized leaves, with the thickest leaf blades and palisade mesophyll layers, the highest stomatal densities, the smallest aperture sizes and the lowest rates of stomatal conductance, making them the most water conservative. Shorea spp. were generally intermediate in blade and palisade mesophyll dimensions between Dipterocarpus spp. and Mesua spp., but they had the smallest leaves. Greater differences among genera than among species within genera were apparent, but species differences within genera were also apparent. Differences among genera and species conform to their known successional status and topographical affinities and provide a more comprehensive understanding of species site adaptation. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 167, 332–343.