It is known that roots can respond to patches of fertility; however, root proliferation is often too slow to exploit resources fully, and organic nutrient patches may be broken down and leached, immobilized or chemically fixed before they are invaded by the root system. The ability of fungal hyphae to exploit resource patches is far greater than that of roots due to their innate physiological and morphological plasticity, which allows comprehensive exploration and rapid colonization of resource patches in soils. The fungal symbionts of ectomycorrhizal plants excrete significant quantities of enzymes such as chitinases, phosphatases and proteases. These might allow the organic residue to be tapped directly for nutrients such as N and P. Pot experiments conducted with nutrient-stressed ectomycorrhizal and control willow plants showed that when high quality organic nutrient patches were added, they were colonized rapidly by the ectomycorrhizal mycelium. These established willows (0.5 m tall) were colonized by Hebeloma syrjense P. Karst. for I year prior to nutrient patch addition. Within days after patch addition, colour changes in the leaves of the mycorrhizal plants (reflecting improved nutrition) were apparent, and after I month the concentration of N and P in the foliage of mycorrhizal plants was significantly greater than that in non-mycorrhizal plants subject to the same nutrient addition. It seems likely that the mycorrhizal plants were able to compete effectively with the wider soil microbiota and tap directly into the high quality organic resource patch via their extra-radical mycelium. We hypothesize that ectomycorrhizal plants may reclaim some of the N and P invested in seed production by direct recycling from failed seeds in the soil. The rapid exploitation of similar discrete, transient, high-quality nutrient patches may have led to underestimations when determining the nutritional benefits of ectomycorrhizal colonization. (C) 2002 Annals of Botany Company.