Abstract Invasive species have been hypothesized to out-compete natives though either a Jack-of-all-trades strategy, where they are able to utilize resources effectively in unfavourable environments, a master-of-some, where resource utilization is greater than its competitors in favourable environments, or a combination of the two (Jack-and-master). We examined the invasive strategy of Berberis darwinii in New Zealand compared with four co-occurring native species by examining germination, seedling survival, photosynthetic characteristics and water-use efficiency of adult plants, in sun and shade environments. Berberis darwinii seeds germinated more in shady sites than the other natives, but survival was low. In contrast, while germination of B. darwinii was the same as the native species in sunny sites, seedling survival after 18 months was nearly twice that of the all native species. The maximum photosynthetic rate of B. darwinii was nearly double that of all native species in the sun, but was similar among all species in the shade. Other photosynthetic traits (quantum yield and stomatal conductance) did not generally differ between B. darwinii and the native species, regardless of light environment. Berberis darwinii had more positive values of δ13C than the four native species, suggesting that it gains more carbon per unit water transpired than the competing native species. These results suggest that the invasion success of B. darwinii may be partially explained by combination of a Jack-of-all-trades scenario of widespread germination with a master-of-some scenario through its ability to photosynthesize at higher rates in the sun and, hence, gain a rapid height and biomass advantage over native species in favourable environments.