The lack of predictability in litter-mix studies may result from the low correlation between species number and the traits that drive the processes under observation. From the standpoint of litter-quality-dependent ecological processes, we propose that litter chemical qualities are functional traits and introduce a multivariate index of chemical diversity (CDQ) based on Rao's quadratic entropy to describe the compositional heterogeneity of litter and foliar mixtures. Using published data from temperate and tropical forest systems to illustrate the relationship between species richness and chemical diversity, we show the variation of chemical diversity based on profiles of total nutrient concentrations (N, P, K, Ca and Mg) with species richness. We discuss how this behavior may explain the idiosyncratic responses exhibited in litter-mix experiments and how it may contribute to the observed dominance of species identity over species diversity. As a summary of resource heterogeneity relevant to detritivore and microbial processes, the chemical diversity index is potentially a better predictor of diversity effects on nutrient dynamics than species richness. Finally, we propose the use of infrared spectroscopy techniques for a rapid and more comprehensive determination of foliar and litter chemical composition to provide a more information-rich index.