Distributions of many humid tropical tree species are associated with specific soil types. This specificity most likely results from processes at the seedling stage, but light rather than nutrient levels is generally considered the dominant limitation for seedling growth in the tropical forest understory. If nutrients are limiting and allocation to belowground resources differs, seedling growth responses to shade should also differ. Here we tested the effects of soil type and light environment on the seedling growth of two canopy tree species in the genus Inga with different soil-type and light-environment affinities as adults. Inga alba is a shade-tolerant soil generalist and I. oestediana is a light-demanding soil specialist. We used four native soils and three light levels (1 and 5% of full sun in shade houses and the forest understory). All growth variables were greatest in 5% full sun, with highest growth rates for the light-demanding soil-type specialist. Soil type significantly affected growth parameters, even at the lower light levels. The specialist grew best on the soils with the most soil phosphorus where adult trees typically occur. Leaf tissue nitrogen:phosphorus ratios suggest increased phosphorus limitation in the low phosphorus soils and with increased light level. Light and soil interacted to significantly affect seedling biomass allocation, growth, and net assimilation rates, indicating that the seedling shade responses were affected by soil type. Seedlings growing on high nutrient soil allocated less to roots and more to photosynthetic tissue. Adult distributions of these two Inga species may be a result of the different growth rates of seedlings in response to the interactive effects of light and soil.