1. Plant functional composition may indirectly affect fine root processes both qualitatively (e.g. by influencing root chemistry) and quantitatively (e.g. by influencing root biomass and thus soil carbon (C) inputs and the soil environment). Despite the potential implications for ecosystem nitrogen (N) cycling, few studies have addressed the linkages between plant functional composition, root decay, root detritus N dynamics and soil N mineralization rates. 2. Here, using data from a large grassland biodiversity experiment, we first show that plant functional composition affected fine root mass loss, root detritus N dynamics and net soil N mineralization rates through its effects on root chemistry rather than on the environment of decomposition. In particular, the presence of legumes and non-leguminous forbs contributed to greater fine root decomposition which in turn enhanced root N release and net soil N mineralization rates compared with C3 and C4 grasses. 3. Second, we show that all fine roots released N immediately during decomposition and showed very little N immobilization regardless of plant composition. As a consequence, there was no evidence of increased root or soil N immobilization rates with increased below-ground plant biomass (i.e. increased soil C inputs) even though root biomass negatively affected root decay. 4. Our results suggest that fine roots represent an active soil N pool that may sustain plant uptake while other soil N forms are being immobilized in microbial biomass and/or sequestered into soil organic matter. However, fine roots may also represent a source of recalcitrant plant detritus that is returned to the soil (i.e. fine roots of C4 and C3 grasses) and that can contribute to an increase in the soil organic matter pool. 5. Synthesis. An important implication of our study is that the simultaneous presence of different plant functional groups (in plant mixtures) with opposite effects on root mass loss, root N release and soil N mineralization rates may be crucial for sustaining multiple ecosystem services such as productivity and soil C and N sequestration in many N-limited grassland systems.