Decomposing litter provides critical nutrients for plants, particularly in nutrient-poor ecosystems such as tropical forests. We hypothesised that decomposing litter improves the performance of a variety of tropical tree seedlings, and that this litter effect varies depending on the species of litter present in litter mixtures. We addressed these hypotheses with a large pot experiment manipulating a range of different litter mixtures of contrasting quality and using seedlings of four tree species from the Amazonian forest of French Guiana. In contrast to our initial hypothesis, decomposing litter had either neutral or negative impacts on seedling growth, despite strongly different growth rates, biomass allocation patterns and leaf and root traits among tree species. Tree species varied in their responses to litter additions, which were further modified by species identity of the added litter. Our data show litter species-specific effects on growth, biomass allocation and leaf and root traits of tropical tree seedlings. These results suggest that a net nutrient release from decomposing litter does not necessarily improve tree seedling growth, even under nutrient-limiting conditions. In conclusion, litter layer composition may affect seedling establishment and recruitment success beyond litter-derived plant nutrient availability, which may contribute to tree species composition and dynamics in the studied tropical forest.