Nitrogen (N) tends to limit plant productivity on young soils; phosphorus (P) becomes increasingly limiting in ancient soils because it gradually disappears through leaching and erosion. Plant traits that are regarded as adaptations to N- and P-limited conditions include mycorrhizas and cluster roots. Mycorrhizas 'scavenge' P from solution or 'mine' insoluble organic N. Cluster roots function in severely P-impoverished landscapes, 'mining' P fixed as insoluble inorganic phosphates. The 'scavenging' and 'mining' strategies of mycorrhizal species without and non-mycorrhizal species with cluster roots, respectively, allow functioning on soils that differ markedly in P availability. Based on recent advances in our understanding of these contrasting strategies of nutrient acquisition, we provide an explanation for the distribution of mycorrhizal species on less P-impoverished soils, and for why, globally, cluster-bearing species dominate on severely P-impoverished, ancient soils, where P sensitivity is relatively common.