Decomposition of soil organic carbon (SOC) is the main process governing the release of CO2 into the atmosphere from terrestrial systems. Although the importance of soil–root interactions for SOC decomposition has increasingly been recognized, their long-term effect on SOC decomposition remains poorly understood. Here we provide experimental evidence for a rhizosphere priming effect, in which interactions between soil and tree roots substantially accelerate SOC decomposition. In a 395-day greenhouse study with Ponderosa pine and Fremont cottonwood trees grown in three different soils, SOC decomposition in the planted treatments was significantly greater (up to 225%) than in soil incubations alone. This rhizosphere priming effect persisted throughout the experiment, until well after initial soil disturbance, and increased with a greater amount of root-derived SOC formed during the experiment. Loss of old SOC was greater than the formation of new C, suggesting that increased C inputs from roots could result in net soil C loss.