Background and Aims Ptilotus polystachyus (green mulla mulla; ptilotus) is a short-lived perennial herb that occurs widely in Australia in arid and semi-arid regions with nutrient poor soils. As this species shows potential for domestication, its response to addition of phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) was compared to a variety of the domesticated exotic perennial pasture herb Cichorium intybus (chicory), ‘Puna’.Methods Pots were filled with 3 kg of an extremely nutrient-deficient sterilized field soil that contained 3 mg kg−1 mineral N and 2 mg kg−1 bicarbonate-extractable P. The growth and P and N accumulation of ptilotus and chicory in response to seven rates of readily available phosphorus (0–300 mg P pot−1) and nitrogen (N) (0–270 mg N pot−1) was examined.Key Results Ptilotus grew extremely well under low P conditions: shoot dry weights were 23, 6 and 1·7 times greater than for chicory at the three lowest levels of P addition, 0, 15 and 30 mg P pot−1, respectively. Ptilotus could not downregulate P uptake. Concentrations of P in shoots approached 4 % of dry weight and cryo-scanning electron microscopy and X-ray microanalysis showed 35–196 mm of P in cell vacuoles in a range of tissues from young leaves. Ptilotus had a remarkable tolerance of high P concentrations in shoots. While chicory exhibited symptoms of P toxicity at the highest rate of P addition (300 mg P pot−1), no symptoms were present for ptilotus. The two species responded in a similar manner to addition of N.Conclusions In comparison to chicory, ptilotus demonstrated an impressive ability to grow well under conditions of low and high P availability. Further study of the mechanisms of P uptake and tolerance in ptilotus is warranted.