An ecosystem containing a mixture of species that differ in phenology, morphology, and physiology might be expected to resist leaching of soil nutrients to a greater extent than one composed of a single species. We tested the effects of species identity and plant-life-form richness on nutrient leaching at a lowland tropical site where deep infiltration averages >2 m year(-1). Three indigenous tree species with contrasting leafing phenologies (evergreen, dry-season deciduous, and wet-season deciduous) were grown in monoculture and together with two other life-forms with which they commonly occur in tropical forests: a palm and a giant, perennial herb. To calculate nutrient leaching over an 11-year period, concentrations of nutrients in soil water were multiplied by drainage rates estimated from a water balance. The effect of plant-life-form richness on retention differed according to tree species identity and nutrient. Nitrate retention was greater in polycultures of the dry-season deciduous tree species (mean of 7.4 kg ha(-1) year(-1) of NO(3)-N lost compared to 12.7 in monoculture), and calcium and magnesium retention were greater in polycultures of the evergreen and wet-season deciduous tree species. Complementary use of light led to intensification of soil exploitation by roots, the main agent responsible for enhanced nutrient retention in some polycultures. Other mechanisms included differences in nutrient demand among species, and avoidance of catastrophic failure due to episodic weather events or pest outbreaks. Even unrealistically simple multi-life-form mimics of tropical forest can safeguard a site's nutrient capital if careful attention is paid to species' characteristics and temporal changes in interspecific interactions.