Boreal coniferous forests are characterized by fairly open canopies where understory vegetation is an important component of ecosystem C and N cycling. We used an ecophysiological approach to study the effects of N additions on uptake and partitioning of C and N in two dominant understory shrubs: deciduous Vaccinium myrtillus in a Picea abies stand and evergreen Vaccinium vitis-idaea in a Pinus sylvestris stand in northern Sweden. N was added to these stands for 16 and 8 years, respectively, at rates of 0, 12.5, and 50 kg N ha(-1) year(-1). N addition at the highest rate increased foliar N and chlorophyll concentrations in both understory species. Canopy cover of P. abies also increased, decreasing light availability and leaf mass per area of V. myrtillus. Among leaves of either shrub, foliar N content did not explain variation in light-saturated CO2 exchange rates. Instead photosynthetic capacity varied with stomatal conductance possibly reflecting plant hydraulic properties and within-site variation in water availability. Moreover, likely due to increased shading under P. abies and due to water limitations in the sandy soil under P. sylvestris, individuals of the two shrubs did not increase their biomass or shift their allocation between above- and belowground parts in response to N additions. Altogether, our results indicate that the understory shrubs in these systems show little response to N additions in terms of photosynthetic physiology or growth and that changes in their performance are mostly associated with responses of the tree canopy.