Plants are often nutrient limited and soil organisms are important in mediating nutrient availability to plants. Thus, there may be a selective advantage to plants that alter the soil community in ways that enhance the decomposition of their litter and, hence, their ability to access nutrients. We incubated litter from three tree species (Fagus sylvatica, Acer pseudoplatanus and Picea sitchensis) in the presence of biota extracted from soil beneath a stand of each species to test the hypothesis that litter decomposes fastest in the presence of biota derived from soil where that species is locally abundant. We found that respiration rate, a measure of decomposer activity and carbon mineralisation, was affected by litter type and source of soil biota, whereas, mass loss was only affected by litter type. However, litter from each tree species did not decompose faster in the presence of indigenous soil biota. These findings, therefore, provide no support for the notion that woodland plants encourage the development of soil communities that rapidly decompose their litter. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.