Suppression of tree seedlings by the understory is an important ecological filter with implications for tree diversity and dynamics. In a greenhouse competition experiment, we used seedlings of four canopy species from coastal dune forest (Diospyros natalensis, Euclea racemosa, Sideroxylon inerme and Apodytes dimidiata) to examine the relative competitive effects of the dominant understory herb Isoglossa woodii on seedling performance. We manipulated I. woodii density, light and nutrient levels and measured growth responses. Total seedling biomass decreased with density of I. woodii. The magnitude of biomass suppression with competitor density was similar among tree species. Consequently there was no discernable hierarchy of competitive ranking among tree species. The relative growth rate of seedlings decreased at higher densities of I. woodii and increased at higher nutrient levels but was unaffected by variation in light conditions. Aboveground biomass decreased at higher densities of I. woodii and at higher light levels but increased at higher nutrient levels. Size asymmetric competition for light and nutrients may be the major driver of aboveground interactions between tree seedling and I. woodii. While tree species showed no hierarchy of competitive ability their seedlings exhibited equivalent responses to competition from an understory dominant, permitting species coexistence and the maintenance of species diversity.