1. Nutrients are a critical resource for plant growth, but the elements limiting growth in tropical forests have rarely been determined.
2. We investigated the influence of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and micronutrients on seedling biomass and nutrient allocation in a factorial nutrient fertilization experiment in lowland tropical forest at the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, Panama. We also measured 8 years of herbivory and growth for 1800 seedlings. We sought to determine the identity of limiting elements and possible nutrient interactions.
3. The five study species were Alseis blackiana, Desmopsis panamensis, Heisteria concinna, Sorocea affinis and Tetragastris panamensis. Plants grew in deeply shaded understorey with a mean canopy openness of 4.9% (±0.7%; 1 SE).
4. Tissue N concentration increased by 11% with N addition. Tissue P concentration increased by 16% with P addition. Tissue K increased by 4% with K addition. K addition reduced root-to-shoot biomass ratio. There was no significant effect of fertilization on specific leaf area or leaf area ratio.
5. The proportion of leaves damaged and the mean level of damage by herbivory increased with P and K addition and showed a significant P × K interaction.
6.7ensp;Across all species and years, relative growth rate of height increased with K addition and with N and P in combination. Relative growth rate of leaf count trended 8.5% higher with K addition (P = 0.076).
7. We also added micronutrients in a parallel experiment. There was no effect of micronutrient addition on any seedling parameter.
8. Synthesis. K addition affected seedlings by enhancing tissue nutrient concentration, increasing herbivory, reducing root-to-shoot biomass ratio and increasing height growth. Additional effects of N or P on tissue chemistry, herbivory and growth offer support for the multiple limiting resources hypothesis. Our results suggest that seedling growth is limited by nutrients, especially K, even under highly shaded conditions in this lowland tropical forest.