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Some of the most species-rich plant communities occur on ancient, strongly weathered soils, whereas those on recently developed soils tend to be less diverse. Mechanisms underlying this well-known pattern, however, remain unresolved. Here, we present a conceptual model describing alternative mechanisms by which pedogenesis (the process of soil formation) might drive plant diversity. We suggest that long-term soil chronosequences offer great, yet largely untapped, potential as ‘natural experiments’ to determine edaphic controls over plant diversity. Finally, we discuss how our conceptual model can be evaluated quantitatively using structural equation modeling to advance multivariate theories about the determinants of local plant diversity. This should help us to understand broader-scale diversity patterns, such as the latitudinal gradient of plant diversity.