The biotic cycling of potassium (K) in forest systems has been relatively understudied in comparison with nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) despite its critical roles in maintaining the nutrition of primary production in forests. We investigated the ecological significance of K in forests from a literature review and data synthesis. We focused on (1) describing patterns of the effects of K availability on aboveground growth and change in foliar tissue of tree species from a variety of forests; and (2) documenting previously unreported relationships between hydrologic losses of K and N in forested watersheds from the Americas. In a review of studies examining tree growth under K manipulations/fertilizations, a high percentage (69% of studies) showed a positive response to increases in K availability in forest soils. In addition, 76% of the tree studies reviewed showed a positive and significant increase in K concentrations in plant tissue after soil K manipulation/fertilization. A meta-analysis on a subset of the reviewed studies was found to provide further evidence that potassium effects tree growth and increased tissue [K] with an effect size of 0.709 for growth and an overall effect size of 0.56. In our review of watershed studies, we observed that concentrations of K typically decreased during growing seasons in streams draining forested areas in the Temperate Zones and were responsive to vegetation disturbance in both temperate and tropical regions. We found a strong relationship (r2 = 0.42–0.99) between concentrations of K and N (another critical plant nutrient) in stream water, suggesting that similar mechanisms of biotic retention may control the flow of these nutrients. Furthermore, K dynamics appear to be unique among the base cations, e.g. calcium, magnesium, and sodium, because the others do not show similar seasonal patterns to K. We suggest that K may be important to the productivity and sustenance of many forests, and its dynamics and ecological significance warrant further study. We suggest that knowledge about the dynamics of this understudied element is imperative for our understanding patterns and processes in forest ecosystems.