Aims The relationship between rhizosphere process and fine root growth is very close but still obscure. In poplar plantation, phenolic acid rhizodeposition and soil nutrient availability were considered as two dominant factors of forest productivity decline. It is very hard to separate them in the field and they might show an interactive effect on fine root growth. The objective of this study is to examine the influence of phenolic acids and nitrogen on branch orders of poplar fine roots and to give a deeper insight into how the ecological process on root-soil interface affected fine root growth as well as plantation productivity. Methods The cuttings of health annual poplar seedlings (I-107, Populus × euramericana ‘Neva’) serve as experiment materials, and were cultivated under nine conditions, including three concentration of phenolic acids at 0X, 0.5X, 1.0X (here, X represented the contents of phenolic acids in the soil of poplar plantation) and three concentration of nitrogen at 0 mmol·L-1, 10 mmol·L-1, 20 mmol·L-1, based on Hoagland solution. The roots were all separated from poplar seedlings after 35 days, and 30 percent of total fine roots of every treatment were taken as fine root samples. These fine roots were grouped according to 1 to 5 branch orders, and then the morphological traits of each group of fine roots were scanned via root analyzer system (WinRHIZO, Regent Instruments Company, Quebec, Canada) including total length, surface area, volume and average diameter. Meanwhile, the dry mass of fine root samples of every order was measured to calculate specific root length (SRL), root tissue density (RTD). All data were analyzed via SPSS 17.0 software, and interactive effect of phenolic acids and nitrogen on roots was analyzed through univariate process module. Principal component analysis (PCA) and redundancy analysis (RDA) were conducted via Canoco 4.5 software. Important findings Under the conditions without phenolic acids application, the fine roots growth was significantly inhibited in deficiency and higher nitrogen treatments, especially for 1-3 order roots. Only specific root length appeared decreased with nitrogen level, and other traits of fine roots did not demonstrate linear relationship with nitrogen concentrations. Compared to 0.5X phenolic acids treatment, 1.0X phenolic acids significantly promoted the diameter and volume of 1-2 order roots (p < 0.05). Both phenolic acids and nitrogen demonstrated influence on poplar fine root traits. However, the diameter and volume of 1-2 order roots were significantly affected by phenolic acids, while the total length and surface area of 4-5 order roots was affected by nitrogen. Two way ANOVA showed that phenolic acids and nitrogen made a synergistic or antagonistic effect on morphological building of fine roots. Furthermore, PCA and RDA indicated that the interactive effects of phenolic acids and nitrogen led to significant differences among 1-3 order, 4th order and 5th order of poplar fine roots. The PC1 explained about 60.9 percent of root morphological variance, which was related to foraging traits of roots. The PC2 explained 25.3 percent of variance, which was related to root building properties. The response of poplar roots to phenolic acids and nitrogen was closely related to root order, and nitrogen played more influence on poplar roots than phenolic acids. Thus, phenolic acids and nitrogen level would affect many properties of root morphology and foraging in rhizosphere soil of poplar plantation. But nitrogen availability would serve as a dominant factor influencing root growth, and soil nutrient management should be critical to productivity maintenance of poplar plantation.