Soil fertility and nutrient-related plant functional traits are in general only moderately related, hindering the progress in trait-based prediction models of vegetation patterns. Although the relationships may have been obscured by suboptimal choices in how soil fertility is expressed, there has never been a systematic investigation into the suitability of fertility measures. This study, therefore, examined the effect of different soil fertility measures on the strength of fertility-trait relationships in 134 natural plant communities. In particular, for eight plot-mean traits we examined (1) whether different elements (N or P) have contrasting or shared influences, (2) which timescale of fertility measures (e.g. mineralization rates for one or five years) has better predictive power, and (3) if integrated fertility measures explain trait variation better than individual fertility measures. Soil N and P had large mutual effects on leaf nutrient concentrations, whereas they had element-specific effects on traits related to species composition (e.g. Grime's CSR strategy). The timescale of fertility measures only had a minor impact on fertility-trait relationships. Two integrated fertility measures (one reflecting overall fertility, another relative availability of soil N and P) were related significantly to most plant traits, but were not better in explaining trait variation than individual fertility measures. Using all fertility measures together, between-site variations of plant traits were explained only moderately for some traits (e.g. 33% for leaf N concentrations) but largely for others (e.g. 66% for whole-canopy P concentration). The moderate relationships were probably due to complex regulation mechanisms of fertility on traits, rather than to a wrong choice of fertility measures. We identified both mutual (i.e. shared) and divergent (i.e. element-specific and stoichiometric) effects of soil N and P on traits, implying the importance of explicitly considering the roles of different elements to properly interpret fertility-trait relationships. © 2013 Fujita et al.