The capability to utilize different forms of nitrogen (N) by sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), rice (Oryza sativa), maize (Zea mays), and pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) was determined in pot experiments. Seedlings were grown for 21 d without N, or with 500 mg N kg−1 soil applied as ammonium nitrate, rice bran or a mixture of rice bran and straw. No treatment-dependent changes of root length, surface area, and fractal dimension were observed. Shoot growth and N uptake in maize and pearl millet correlated with the inorganic N (ammonium and nitrate) concentration in the soil, suggesting that these species depend upon inorganic N uptake. On the other hand, shoot growth and N uptake patterns in sorghum and rice indicated that these two species could compensate low inorganic N levels in the organic material treatments by taking up organic N (proteins). Analysis of N uptake rates in solution culture experiments confirmed that sorghum and rice roots have higher capabilities to absorb protein N than maize and pearl millet.