Background and Aims Lobed leaves are considered selectively advantageous in conditions of high irradiance. However, most studies have involved woody species, with only a few considering the role of leaf lobation in herbaceous rosette species. In this study, it is hypothesized that, in addition to its adaptive value in high light, leaf lobation may add to the function of petioles as vertical spacers in herbaceous species in conditions of strong competition for light. Methods To test this hypothesis, leaf development was examined under seasonally changing natural light conditions and a field experiment was conducted in which light climate was manipulated in a wooded meadow population of Serratula tinctoria. Key Results No changes in leaf lobation were observed in response to experimental shading or different natural light conditions. However, in tall herbaceous vegetation, plants with highly lobed leaves achieved significantly greater vertical elongation than plants with less-lobed leaves. In contrast to herbaceous shade, tree shade had no effect on leaf elongation, suggesting differential responsiveness to competition from neighbouring herbs versus overhead shade. In shading treatments, imposed shade could only be responded to by the elongation of leaves that were produced late in development. Conclusions The results show that extensive leaf lobation can enable greater leaf elongation in response to shade from surrounding herbaceous vegetation. The different morphological responses displayed by Serratula tinctoria to different types of shade demonstrate the importance of critically assessing experimental designs when investigating phenotypic plasticity in response to shade.