Forest ecosystems with low soil nitrogen (N) availability are characterized by direct competition for this growth-limiting resource between several players, i.e. various components of vegetation, such as old-growth trees, natural regeneration and understorey species, mycorrhizal fungi, free-living fungi and bacteria. With the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme climate events predicted in current climate change scenarios, also competition for N between plants and/or soil microorganisms will be affected. In this review, we summarize the present understanding of ecosystem N cycling in N-limited forests and its interaction with extreme climate events, such as heat, drought and flooding. More specifically, the impacts of environmental stresses on microbial release and consumption of bioavailable N, N uptake and competition between plants, as well as plant and microbial uptake are presented. Furthermore, the consequences of drying–wetting cycles on N cycling are discussed. Additionally, we highlight the current methodological difficulties that limit present understanding of N cycling in forest ecosystems and the need for interdisciplinary studies.