BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Soil phosphorus (P) deficiency and salinity are constraints to crop productivity in arid and semiarid regions. Salinity may weaken the effect of P fertilization on plant growth. We investigated the interactive effects of soil P availability and salinity on plant growth, P nutrition and salt tolerance of two alfalfa (Medicago sativa) cultivars. METHODS: A pot experiment was carried out to grow two cultivars of alfalfa in a loess soil under a combination of different rates of added P (0, 40, 80 and 160 mg P kg-1 soil as monopotassium phosphate) and sodium chloride (0, 0.4, 0.8 and 1.6 g NaCl kg-1 soil). Plant biomass, concentrations of P ([P]), sodium ([Na]) and potassium ([K]) were determined, and rhizosheath carboxylates were analysed. KEY RESULTS: There were significant interactions between soil P availability and salinity on some, but not all, of the parameters investigated, and interactions depended on cultivar. Plant growth and P uptake were enhanced by P fertilization, but inhibited by increased levels of salinity. Increasing the salinity resulted in decreased plant P-uptake efficiency and [K]/[Na]. Only soil P availability had a significant effect on the amount of tartrate in the rhizosheath of both cultivars. CONCLUSIONS: Increased salinity aggravated P deficiency. Appropriate application of P fertilizers improved the salt tolerance of alfalfa and increased its productivity in saline soils.