Within the tropics, a marked gradient in rainfall between dry and wet forests correlates with a well documented turnover of plant species. While water availability along these gradients is an important determinant of species distributions, other abiotic and biotic factors correlate with rainfall and may also contribute to limit species distribution. One of these is soil fertility, which is often lower in the wetter forests. To test its possible role in species distribution along a rainfall gradient, we performed a screen-house experiment where we measured the growth performance of seedlings of 23 species with contrasting distributions across the Isthmus of Panama. We grew seedlings in soils collected from the drier Pacific side and the wetter Atlantic side. Differences in soil fertility across the Isthmus were large enough to significantly influence the growth performance of the seedlings. However, we found no evidence of home-soil advantage among species with contrasting distributions. Dry-distribution species grew on average slower than wet-distribution species suggesting a cost to drought adaptations. The response to soil differences correlated with the growth rate of the species, such that fast-growing species responded more to changes in soil quality. We hypothesize that inherently slow growth rates of some dry-distribution tropical species may be a more important factor limiting their colonization of wetter sites along the rainfall gradient.