Fundamental links between genes and ecosystem processes have remained elusive, although they have the potential to place ecosystem sciences within a genetic and evolutionary framework. Utilizing common gardens with cottonwood trees of known genotype, we found that the concentration of condensed tannins is genetically based and is the best predictor of ecosystem-level processes. Condensed tannin inputs from foliage explained 55–65% of the variation in soil net nitrogen (N) mineralization under both field and laboratory conditions. Alternative associations with litter lignin, soil moisture or soil temperature were relatively poor predictors of litter decomposition and net N mineralization. In contrast to the paradigm that the effects of genes are too diffuse to be important at the ecosystem-level, here we show that plant genes had strong, immediate effects on ecosystem function via a tight coupling of plant polyphenols to rates of nitrogen cycling.