Numerous botanists of the early 19th century investigated the effect of sunlight on plant development, but no clear picture developed. One hundred and fifty years ago, Julius Sachs (1863) systematically analysed the light–plant relationships, using developing garden nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) and seedlings of buckwheat (Fagopyron esculentum) as experimental material. From these studies, Sachs elucidated the phenomenon of photomorphogenesis (plant development under the influence of daylight) and the associated ‘shade-avoidance response’. We have reproduced the classical buckwheat experiments of Sachs (1863) and document the original shade-avoidance syndrome with reference to hypocotyl elongation and cotyledon development in darkness (skotomorphogenesis), white light and shade induced by a canopy of green leaves. In subsequent publications, Sachs elaborated his concepts of 1863 and postulated the occurrence of ‘flower-inducing substances’. In addition, he argued that the shade-avoidance response in cereals, such as wheat and maize, is responsible for lodging in crowded plant communities. We discuss these processes with respect to the red- to far-red light/phytochrome B relationships. Finally, we summarise the phytochrome B–phytohormone (auxin, brassinosteroids) connection within the cells of shaded Arabidopsis plants, and present a simple model to illustrate the shade-avoidance syndrome. In addition, we address the relationship between plant density and health of the corresponding population, a topic that was raised for the first time by Sachs (1863) in his seminal paper and elaborated in his textbooks.