Tetramerista glabra has a remarkable combination of life history traits. It is a dense-wooded, large, common canopy tree in primary peat swamp rain forest. Its seedlings, although shade tolerant, can grow rapidly in high light conditions, but frequently lack structural stability. Most juvenile stems (94% in the understory and 38% in canopy gaps) collapse under their own weight or from branchfalls. Fallen stems then ramify into vegetative sprouts, which in turn may collapse, perpetuating a vegetative juvenile cycle. Most recruitment is from sprouts rather than from seed. Structural analysis of stem dimensions shows that stems 2–8 cm DBH (diameter at breast height) are close to the theoretical buckling limit, especially for those dependent on neighboring vegetation to maintain vertical form. Trees > 4 cm DBH persisting as upright stems develop stilt root support and become structurally independent at ca 8 cm DBH. Eventually, as stems thicken, stilt roots anastamose and trees adopt the cylindrical growth form of mature canopy trees (up to 150 cm DBH). Thus, the vegetative life history strategy of the species is to: (i) regenerate a large “ramet bank” from the majority of juveniles that fail structurally while suppressed in the understoty, and (ii) to maximize height growth at the expense of diameter growth in high light conditions. The growth pattern and plastic form of T. glabra shows how a shade tolerant species may adapt to utilize the ephemeral light resource in canopy gaps. The growth strategy of this species allows it to circumvent the normal trade-off between shade tolerance and rapid growth in canopy gaps.