Plant growth, nutrient uptake, microbial biomass and activity were studied in pot systems containing spruce seedlings colonised with different ectomycorrhizal fungi from an ash-fertilised forest. The seedling root systems were enclosed in mesh bags inside an outer compartment containing crushed, hardened wood ash. Three different species of mycorrhizal fungi and a non-mycorrhizal control were exposed to factorial combinations of ash and N addition. Ash treatment had a highly significant, positive effect on plant growth and on shoot and root concentrations of K, Ca and P, irrespective of mycorrhizal status. Mycorrhizal inoculation had a significant effect on plant growth, which was proportionally greater in the absence of ash. N addition had a significant positive effect on plant biomass in mycorrhizal treatments with ash, but no effect in non-mycorrhizal treatments or most of the mycorrhizal treatments without ash. Piloderma sp. 1, which was earlier found to colonise wood ash granules in field studies, appeared to accumulate Ca from ash in the mycorrhizal roots. 5-6.7% of the total P in the ash was solubilised, with 0.9-1.5% in solution, 3.6-4.6% in the plants and 0.5-1.5% in microbial biomass. Bacterial activity as determined by [H-3]-thymidine and [C-14]-leucine incorporation was significantly greater in ash treatments than in controls with no ash addition. Principal component analysis (PCA) of phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) showed a clear difference in bacterial community structure between samples collected from ash-treated pots and controls without ash. (C) 2002 Federation of European Microbiological Societies. Published by Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.