1. Large areas of highly productive tropical forests occur on weathered soils with low concentrations of available phosphorus (P). In such forests, root and microbial production of acid phosphatase enzymes capable of mineralizing organic phosphorus is considered vital to increasing available P for plant uptake.
2. We measured both root and soil phosphatase throughout depth and alongside a variety of root and soil factors to better understand the potential of roots and soil biota to increase P availability and to constrain estimates of the biochemical mineralization within ecosystem models.
3. We measured soil phosphatase down to 1 m, root phosphatase to 30 cm, and collected data on fine‐root mass density, specific root length, soil P, bulk density, and soil texture using soil cores in four tropical forests within the Luquillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico.
4. We found that soil phosphatase decreased with soil depth, but not root phosphatase. Furthermore, when both soil and root phosphatase were expressed per soil volume, soil phosphatase was 100‐fold higher that root phosphatase.
5. Both root and soil factors influenced soil and root phosphatase. Soil phosphatase increased with fine‐root mass density and organic P, which together explained over 50% of the variation in soil phosphatase. Over 80% of the variation in root phosphatase per unit root mass was attributed to specific root length (positive correlation) and available (resin) P (negative correlation).
6. Synthesis: Fine‐root traits and soil P data are necessary to understand and represent soil and root phosphatase activity throughout the soil column and across sites with different soil conditions and tree species. These findings can be used to parameterize or benchmark estimates of biochemical mineralization in ecosystem models that contain fine‐root biomass and soil P distributions throughout depth.