Lianas are a prominent growth form in tropical forests, and there is compelling evidence that they are increasing in abundance throughout the Neotropics. While recent evidence shows that soil resources limit tree growth even in deep shade, the degree to which soil resources limit lianas in forest understories, where they coexist with trees for decades, remains unknown. Regardless, the physiological underpinnings of soil resource limitation in deeply shaded tropical habitats remain largely unexplored for either trees or lianas. Theory predicts that lianas should be more limited by soil resources than trees because they occupy the quick-return end of the "leaf economic spectrum," characterized by high rates of photosynthesis, high specific leaf area, short leaf life span, affinity to high-nutrient sites, and greater foliar nutrient concentrations. To address these issues, we asked whether soil resources (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), alone or in combination, applied experimentally for more than a decade would cause significant changes in the morphology or physiology of tree and liana seedlings in a lowland tropical forest. We found evidence for the first time that phosphorus limits the photosynthetic performance of both trees and lianas in deeply shaded understory habitats. More importantly, lianas always showed significantly greater photosynthetic capacity, quenching, and saturating light levels compared to trees across all treatments. We found little evidence for nutrient x growth form interactions, indicating that lianas were not disproportionately favored in nutrient-rich habitats. Tree and liana seedlings differed markedly for six key morphological traits, demonstrating that architectural differences occurred very early in ontogeny prior to lianas finding a trellis (all seedlings were self-supporting). Overall, our results do not support nutrient loading as a mechanism of increasing liana abundance in the Neotropics. Rather, our finding that lianas always outperform trees, in terms of photosynthetic processes and under contrasting rates of resource supply of macronutrients, will allow lianas to increase in abundance if disturbance and tree turnover rates are increasing in Neotropical forests as has been suggested.