1. A functional growth analysis was used to determine the duration of strict dependency on seed reserves for energy and nitrogen in three woody Bignoniaceae species (Tabebuia rosea DC., Challichlamys latifolia K. Schum. and Pithecoctenium crucigerum A. Gentry) which differed in cotyledon function (photosynthetic, semi-photosynthetic and storage) and shade tolerance (probability of seedling establishment and survival in the understorey).
2. Seedlings were raised from seeds in sand culture under combinations of three nitrogen levels (daily supply of nutrient solution containing 100, 10 and 0% of 2·6 mm N) and two irradiances (27 and 1% full sun). Time course of biomass, non-cotyledonous biomass and leaf area for 40 days post-germination were compared to identify when the external availability of nitrogen or light began to affect seedling growth.
3. Seedlings of all species became dependent on external energy supply earlier than they did on nitrogen supply. In all species seed nitrogen was sufficient to support positive seedling growth for 40 days in shade, but not in sun.
4. Tabebuia rosea with photosynthetic cotyledons responded to light availability earlier than more shade-tolerant species with storage cotyledons. Challichlamys latifolia, the most shade-tolerant species, had the highest nitrogen concentration in seeds and was the last to respond to external nitrogen availability. Thus seedlings of the most shade-tolerant species depended on seed reserves for the longest period for both energy and nitrogen.
5. Relative growth rate after seedlings initiated autotrophic growth was in a trade-off relationship with seedling survivorship in the understorey across the three species. Tabebuia rosea, the least shade-tolerant species, had the highest positive net carbon balance in sun and shade.
6. Functional morphology of cotyledons and concentration of seed nitrogen deserve as much attention as seed size as correlates of contrasting seedling regeneration strategies.