The competitive influence of the root system of the exotic grass Urochloa brizantha and the widespread forb Leonotis nepetifolia on the emergence, survival and early growth of the seedlings of eight tropical heliophilous herbaceous species, six early-successional woody species and five late-successional woody species from Brazil, grown in 3500-cm3 pots and in greenhouse without light restriction were assessed. The density of fine-root systems produced by the forb and the grass in pots were 6.8 cm cm−3 soil and 48.1 cm cm−3 soil, respectively. Seedlings survival of the heliophilous herbaceous, early- and late-successional woody species were 86%, 70% and 100% in presence of the forb root system and 12%, 14% and 100% in competition with grass root system, respectively. The competitive pressure applied by the grass root system on seedling growth of the heliophilous herbaceous, early- and late-successional woody species were 2.4, 1.9 and 1.4 times greater than the forb root system. Total root length of the heliophilous herbaceous, early- and late-successional woody species grown without competitors were 13, 33 and 5 times greater than in competition with forb, and were 66, 54 and 6 times greater than in competition with grass root system, respectively. The averages of fine-root diameter of plants grown without competitors were 209 μm for the heliophilous herbaceous, 281 μm for early-successional trees and 382 μm for late-successional trees. The root system of the forb did not avoid seedling establishment of most plant species, but the grass root system hampered more the establishment of heliophilous herbaceous and early-successional woody species than the seedling establishment of late-successional woody species. The different density of root systems produced in soil by the forb and the grass, and the distinct root traits (e.g. root diameter and root tissue density) of the early- and late-successional plant species can explain the differences in the establishment of seedlings of plant species belonging to different groups of tropical succession when exposed to below-ground competition.