Differential tree seedling recruitment across forest-savanna ecotones is poorly understood, but hypothesized to be influenced by vegetation cover and associated factors. In a 3-y-long field transplant experiment in the forest-savanna ecotone of Ghana, we assessed performance and root allocation of 864 seedlings for two forest (Khaya ivorensis and Terminalia superba) and two savanna (Khaya senegalensis and Terminalia macroptera) species in savanna woodland, closed-woodland and forest. Herbaceous vegetation biomass was significantly higher in savanna woodland (1.0 ± 0.4 kg m−2 vs 0.2 ± 0.1 kg m−2 in forest) and hence expected fire intensities, while some soil properties were improved in forest. Regardless, seedling survival declined significantly in the first-year dry-season for all species with huge declines for the forest species (50% vs 6% for Khaya and 16% vs 2% for Terminalia) by year 2. After 3 y, only savanna species survived in savanna woodland. However, best performance for savanna Khaya was in forest, but in savanna woodland for savanna Terminalia which also had the highest biomass fraction (0.8 ± 0.1 g g−1 vs 0.6 ± 0.1 g g−1 and 0.4 ± 0.1 g g−1) and starch concentration (27% ± 10% vs 15% ± 7% and 10% ± 4%) in roots relative to savanna and forest Khaya respectively. Our results demonstrate that tree cover variation has species-specific effects on tree seedling recruitment which is related to root storage functions.