Many studies have demonstrated that reduced light availability, which can be manipulated at local scales by planting or seeding canopy species, can curtail the growth of invasive species and promote the growth of native species. Species differences in functional traits, such as light use and stress tolerance, may be used to determine how native and invasive species will respond to these resource manipulations. We altered light availability in a mesic Hawaiian forest understory and found that low light levels reduced the biomass and growth of two invasive grasses (Pennisetum clandestinum and Ehrharta stipoides) relative to two native shrubs (Pipturus albidus and Coprosma rhynchocarpa) and two native canopy species (Metrosideros polymorpha and Acacia koa). Native species generally displayed traits associated with shade tolerance (high quantum yield, chlorophyll content, and leaf mass per area), whereas the two invasive grasses displayed traits associated with shade intolerance (high photosynthetic rate and growth rate). Several key traits pertaining to light acquisition and shade tolerance (quantum yield, chlorophyll content, and leaf mass per area) predicted seedling survival in low-light treatments. Our data suggest that differences in light use among native and invasive species can help to determine the utility of resource manipulation as a restoration tool and, more specifically, to predict which native species will be optimal for restoration efforts that manipulate light availability.