The effect of wildfire on ecosystem function is gaining interest since climate change is expected to increase fire frequency and intensity in many forest systems. Fire alters the nutritional status of forest ecosystems, affecting ecosystem function and productivity, but further studies evaluating changes in leaf nutrient traits induced by forest wildfires are still needed. We used a 17-year-old Pinus canariensis wildfire chronosequence to elucidate the nature of nutrient limitations in natural and unmanaged pine forest in the Canary Islands. Pine needles were sampled in winter and spring and analysed for N and P concentrations. As expected, we found the lowest leaf N and leaf P in recently burned plots. However, the leaf N:P ratio was higher in burned versus unburned plots, suggesting that the decrease in P availability due to the fire is larger than that of N. For all leaf traits and sampling dates, leaf trait values in burned plots matched those observed in unburned plots 17 years after a fire. The N:P ratio found in P. canariensis needles was one of the lowest values reported in the literature for woody species, and suggests that all pine trees in the chronosequence are unambiguously limited by low N availability. Our results show that these N-limited pine forests retained N more efficiently than P 4 years after a wildfire; however, leaf N recovery is slower than P recovery, suggesting that the mechanisms responsible for pine N limitation operate continuously in these forests. © Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009. Abstract reproduced by permission.