The soil phosphorus (P) requirements of 18 species that included native grasses and naturalised legumes were compared with the predominant sown species (Trifolium subterraneum, Lolium perenne and Phalaris aquatica) in a series of glasshouse and field experiments based on the Long-term Phosphate Experiment at Hamilton, Victoria. The native grasses Austrostipa scabra and Rytidosperma caespitosum had the lowest external P requirements, as measured by the Olsen P at which 90% of maximal dry matter (DM) production was obtained, but were of low nutrient value as livestock feed. The naturalised legume Lotus corniculatus had the lowest external P requirement of the legumes, but had low DM production. The highest legume DM production under low-P conditions in the field and one glasshouse experiment was obtained for T. subterraneum. This was attributed to its large seed, which enables rapid initial growth and thus captures light and nutrient resources early in the growing season. However, it forms a relatively low proportion of the pasture sward in low-P soil under grazed mixed pasture conditions in the field. This was attributed to its relatively high nutritive value, which leads to it being preferentially grazed, leaving species that are either less palatable or less accessible to grazing livestock. This work suggests that, in low-P environments, there is a much stronger selection pressure favouring low relative palatability over P efficiency. In conclusion, to maintain desirable species in temperate low-input pastures, sufficient P needs to be applied to maintain fertility above a threshold at which the less-palatable species begin to invade.