Seven annual-perennial pairs of grass species (six congeneric and one pair taken at random) were grown under productive conditions in the laboratory in order to investigate which plant characters were responsible for the higher relative growth rate (RGR) of annuals as compared to perennials under these conditions. The nitrogen and carbon concentrations of shoot organs and of the whole plant were higher in annuals than in perennials. This was also the case for the specific absorption rate for nitrate and nitrogen productivity (on whole plant and leaf basis). The range of RGR displayed by the 14 species was large enough (0.15–0.33d−1) to examine the general relationships between RGR and the various parameters measured in the present study. RGR was positively related to plant, leaf blade and sheath nitrogen concentrations, but there was no relationship between RGR and any of the carbon concentrations. RGR also strongly correlated with specific absorption rate for nitrate and with nitrogen productivity. A new factorization of this latter parameter led to the definition of the ‘leaf nitrogen productivity’ (NLP), which is likely to depend on photosynthetic nitrogen use efficiency. RGR was shown to be strongly correlated with NLP, but not with the second term of the factorization, namely the proportion of plant nitrogen allocated to the leaves.