In this study, we assessed whether a range of temperate grassland species showed preferential uptake for different chemical forms of N, including inorganic N and a range of amino acids that commonly occur in temperate grassland soil. Preferential uptake of dual-labelled (13C and 15N) glycine, serine, arginine and phenylalanine, as compared to inorganic N, was tested using plants growing in pots with natural field soil. We selected five grass species representing a gradient from fertilised, productive pastures to extensive, low productivity pastures (Lolium perenne, Holcus lanatus, Anthoxanthum odoratum, Deschampsia flexuosa, and Nardus stricta). Our data show that all grass species were able to take up directly a diversity of soil amino acids of varying complexity. Moreover, we present evidence of marked inter-species differences in preferential use of chemical forms of N of varying complexity. L. perenne was relatively more effective at using inorganic N and glycine compared to the most complex amino acid phenylalanine, whereas N. stricta showed a significant preference for serine over inorganic N. Total plant N acquisition, measured as root and shoot concentration of labelled compounds, also revealed pronounced interspecies differences which were related to plant growth rate: plants with higher biomass production were found to take up more inorganic N. Our findings indicate that species-specific differences in direct uptake of different N forms combined with total N acquisition could explain changes in competitive dominance of grass species in grasslands of differing fertility. © Springer-Verlag 2004.