Aims The legumes most often used in temperate pastures such as Trifolium subterraneum have relatively high external P requirements for maximum growth. We investigated root traits associated with P acquisition in current and novel pasture legumes, as well as temperate grasses which have lower P requirements. Methods Thirteen legume species, two pasture grasses, and three high carboxylate-exuding crop species (Lupinus albus, L. angustifolius, Cicer arietinum) were grown in a glasshouse for six weeks. Rhizosphere carboxylates and root morphological traits were measured. Results Ornithopus spp. had rhizosphere carboxylates in similar quantities to the Lupinus spp. (> 40 μmol g−1 root dry mass). Trifolium subterraneum lines had relatively large average root diameter, reduced specific root length and very short average root hair length resulting in specific root hair cylinder volumes (RHCVs) only 14–20 % of the grasses. However, O. sativus, O. compressus and Biserrula pelecinus had specific RHCVs more comparable to the grasses. Conclusions Novel pasture legume species with root morphology more comparable to that of grasses than T. subterraneum were identified. Of these, Ornithopus spp. were notable as they also had high rhizosphere carboxylates relative to root dry mass.