Many species of rainforest plants have an unusual form of leaf development such that leaves delay greening until after full leaf expansion. Chlorophyll accumulation was measured during leaf development in five woody rainforest species, three with white young leaves, and two with ‘normal’ greening. In the three species with white leaves, the chlorophyll content of the expanding leaves was about 0.4mg dm−2, whereas in the two species with green young leaves, chlorophyll content was about 2.1 mg dm−2. Chlorophyll accumulation in greenhouse and field experiments was independent of light level. During leaf expansion, species with delayed chloroplast development only absorb 18–25% of the maximum possible light, compared with 80% for species with normal greening. Furthermore, species with delayed greening have low chlorophyll contents and reduced absorption for at least 30 d after full expansion. At a PPFD typical of the forest under story, the photosynthetic light use efficiency based upon incident radiation was 0.030–0.036 for species with delayed chloroplast development and 0.068–0.085 for the two species with normal greening. The lower light use efficiency of white species was primarily due to decreased light absorption. However, they also had a slightly lower light use efficiency based upon absorbed radiation, suggesting that development of other components of the photo-synthetic apparatus also may be delayed. Despite the fact that delayed greening decreases light absorption and light use efficiency during leaf development, it is extremely common in shade-tolerant species. We suggest that an advantage of delayed greening is that resources are not invested in the leaf until it is fully expanded and better defended from herbivores.