• In tropical rain forests the rate of litterfall is high, and is the most important nutrient cycling pathway in these ecosystems. We tested two hypotheses using seedlings of dipterocarp species: (1) addition of leaf litter improves growth; (2) and litter addition affects both ectomycorrhizal (ECM) colonization and community structure.
• Three dipterocarp species with contrasting ecologies (Parashorea tomentella, Hopea nervosa and Dryobalanops lanceolata) were grown in a nursery in forest soil with or without the addition of litter.
• Litter addition improved the growth of all three species. There was no effect of litter addition on total percentage ECM colonization but ECM diversity and percentage colonization by Cenococcum geophilum were lower with litter addition. Foliar δ15N was lower in two of the three species grown in the presence of litter, reflecting the lower δ15N of the litter compared with the soil. There was a negative correlation between δ15N and percentage ECM, suggesting a role for ECMs in accessing litter-derived N sources.
• This study shows that litter addition improved the growth of dipterocarp seedlings and that the ECM associations of dipterocarps facilitated access to this organic nutrient source. This has implications for the successful regeneration of seedlings in the rain forest understorey.