© 2015 German Botanical Society and Royal Botanical Society of the Netherlands. The abundance and distribution of species can be ascribed to both environmental heterogeneity and stress tolerance, with the latter measure sometimes associated with phenotypic plasticity. Although phenotypic plasticity varies predictably in response to common forms of stress, we lack a mechanistic understanding of the response of species to high saline-sodic soils. We compared the phenotypic plasticity of three pairs of high and low saline-sodic tolerant congeners from the families Poaceae (Leymus chinensis versus L. secalinus), Fabaceae (Lespedeza davurica versus L. bicolor) and Asteraceae (Artemisia mongolica versus A. sieversiana) in a controlled pot experiment in the Songnen grassland, China. The low tolerant species, L. secalinus and A. sieversiana exhibited higher plasticity in response to soil salinity and sodicity than their paired congeners. Highly tolerant species, L. chinensis and A. mongolica, had higher values for several important morphological traits, such as shoot length and total biomass under the high saline-sodic soil treatment than their paired congeners. In contrast, congeners from the family Fabaceae, L. davurica and L. bicolor, did not exhibit significantly different plasticity in response to soil salinity and sodicity. All species held a constant reproductive effort in response to saline-sodic soil stress. The different responses between low and high tolerant species offer an explanation for the distribution patterns of these species in the Songnen grassland. Highly tolerant species showed less morphological plasticity over a range of saline-sodic conditions than their paired congeners, which may manifest as an inability to compete with co-occurring species in locations where saline-sodic soils are absent.