When plants are subjected to leaf canopy shade in forest understories or from neighboring plants, they not only experience reduced light quantity, but light quality in lowered red:far red light (R:FR). Growth and other developmental responses of plants in reduced R:FR can vary and are not consistent across species. We compared how an invasive liana, Celastrus orbiculatus, and its closely related native congener, C. scandens, responded to changes in the R:FR under controlled, simulated understory conditions. We measured a suite of morphological and growth attributes under control, neutral shading, and low R:FR light treatments. Celastrus orbiculatus showed an increase in height, aboveground biomass, and total leaf mass in reduced R:FR treatments as compared to the neutral shade, while C. scandens had increased stem diameter, single leaf area, and leaf mass to stem mass ratio. These differences provide a mechanistic understanding of the ability of C. orbiculatus to increase height and actively forage for light resources in forest understories, while C. scandens appears unable to forage for light and instead depends upon a light gap forming. The plastic growth response of C. orbiculatus in shaded conditions points to its success in forested habitats where C. scandens is largely absent.