Plants exhibit adaptive responses to light, but it is not known whether parental plants transmit environmental cues that elicit adaptive responses in offspring. We show that offspring life history (annual versus biennial) is influenced by the maternal light environment (understory versus light gap). This transgenerational plasticity is adaptive when offspring are grown in their maternal light environment, where seeds typically disperse. Projections of population growth show that plants that are appropriately cued for their light environment through maternal effects have 3.4 times greater fitness than otherwise. Transgenerational plasticity has evolved in response to natural variation in light and provides a flexible mechanism by which sedentary organisms cope with heterogeneous environments.