Abundance and physiology of three understorey tree fern species were compared in a Mexican cloud forest. We hypothesized that the distribution of species would be associated with canopy openness and leaf physiological characteristics. In gullies (1–2% full sun), Alsophila firma was abundant, Cyathea divergens was distributed in moderately open places (4–9%), and Lophosoria quadripinnata preferred more open canopy (9–30%). Although 11 leaf traits of five plants of each species growing under closed and open canopies over 1 y did not differ within species, there were significant interspecific differences. Alsophila firma had comparatively low maximum electron transport rate ETRmax (26.8 ± 1.81 μmol m−2 s−1) and ETR light saturation point (ETRLSP: 261 ± 36.1 μmol m−2 s−1), high specific leaf area (SLA), thin leaves and decreased quantum yield during a leaf desiccation experiment. Cyathea divergens had relatively high maximum quantum yield (0.84 ± 0.004), ETRmax (37.3 ± 1.8 μmol m−2 s−1) and ETRLSP (409 ± 40.0 μmol m−2 s−1). Lophosoria quadripinnata had comparatively thick leaves, low SLA, high predawn water potential, high density (606 ± 25.5 mm−2) and small length (0.026 ± 0.002 mm) stomata. The results support the hypothesis that light sensitivity shapes tree fern distribution in the cloud forest.