Plant leaf litter is an important source of soil chemicals that are essential for the ecosystem and changes in leaf litter chemical traits during decomposition will determine the availability of multiple chemical elements recycling in the ecosystem. However, it is unclear whether the changes in litter chemical traits during decomposition and their similarities across species can be predicted, respectively, using other leaf traits or using the phylogenetic relatedness of the litter species. Here we examined the fragmentation levels, mass losses, and the changes of 10 litter chemical traits during 1-yr decomposition under different environmental conditions (within/above surrounding litter layer) for 48 temperate tree species and related them to an important leaf functional trait, i.e. leaf toughness. Leaf toughness could predict the changes well in terms of amounts, but poorly in terms of concentrations. Changes of 7 out of 10 litter chemical traits during decomposition showed a significant phylogenetic signal notably when litter was exposed above surrounding litter. These phylogenetic signals in element dynamics were stronger than those of initial elementary composition. Overall, relatively hard-to-measure ecosystem processes like element dynamics during decomposition could be partly predicted simply from phylogenies and leaf toughness measures. We suggest that the strong phylogenetic signals in chemical ecosystem functioning of species may reflect the concerted control by multiple moderately conserved traits, notably if interacting biota suffer microclimatic stress and spatial isolation from ambient litter.