Tropical montane forests (TMF) are associated with a widely observed suite of characteristics encompassing forest structure, plant traits and biogeochemistry. With respect to nutrient relations, montane forests are characterized by slow decomposition of organic matter, high investment in below-ground biomass and poor litter quality, relative to tropical lowland forests. However, within TMF there is considerable variation in substrate age, parent material, disturbance and species composition. The scientists emphasize that many TMFs are likely to be co-limited by multiple nutrients, and that feedback among soil properties, species traits, microbial communities and environmental conditions drive forest productivity and soil carbon storage. To date, studies of the biogeochemistry of montane forests have been restricted to a few, mostly neotropical, sites and focused mainly on trees while ignoring mycorrhizas (fungus), epiphytes (air plants) and microbial community structure. Incorporating the geographic, environmental and biotic variability in TMF will lead to a greater recognition of plant–soil feedbacks that are critical to understanding constraints on productivity, both under present conditions and under future climate, nitrogen-deposition and land-use scenarios.