Failure of reproduction is hypothesized as being a main reason for the formation of upper tree lines but there is, as yet, little supportive evidence of such. This study investigates the effects of experimental sowing, canopy cover and litter depth on seedling emergence and survival of Polylepis incana and Polylepis pauta at the upper distribution limit of the species in the Páramo de Papallacta, central Ecuador. We established 18 study plots located in the interior, at the edge and at the exterior of closed forests at the upper tree line and analysed seedling dynamics for 1 y following experimental sowing with four different litter treatments. For both species, seedling numbers were significantly higher in the forest interior than outside, and higher in the treatments with the litter layer removed. In P. pauta, sowing significantly increased seedling number, which was more pronounced within and at the edge of the forest than outside. In contrast, there was no impact of sowing on seedling emergence in P. incana. First-year seedling survival and mean growth rate per month were low in both species. Log-linear models did not reveal significant interactions between survival and canopy cover or litter removal. Our data show that seedling recruitment is limited at the upper tree line – presumably due to extreme climatic conditions – which indicates the importance of constraints in sexual regeneration for tree-line formation in central Ecuador.