Plant species diversity in Eurasian wetlands and grasslands depends not only on productivity but also on the relative availability of nutrients, particularly of nitrogen and phosphorus. Here we show that the impacts of nitrogen:phosphorus stoichiometry on plant species richness can be explained by selected plant life-history traits, notably by plant investments in growth versus reproduction. In 599 Eurasian sites with herbaceous vegetation we examined the relationship between the local nutrient conditions and community-mean life-history traits. We found that compared with plants in nitrogen-limited communities, plants in phosphorus-limited communities invest little in sexual reproduction (for example, less investment in seed, shorter flowering period, longer lifespan) and have conservative leaf economy traits (that is, a low specific leaf area and a high leaf dry-matter content). Endangered species were more frequent in phosphorus-limited ecosystems and they too invested little in sexual reproduction. The results provide new insight into how plant adaptations to nutrient conditions can drive the distribution of plant species in natural ecosystems and can account for the vulnerability of endangered species. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited.