Abstract In this study we investigated the variations in soil seed banks along an altitudinal gradient in the Alborz mountains, Iran, covering three habitats from lower to upper altitudes: forest, forest-subalpine grassland ecotone and subalpine meadow. In each habitat from 1850 to 2400m, 20 quadrats were established along four transects, and the above-ground vegetation and the germinable seed banks were determined. Results show that the similarity between seed bank and vegetation was lowest in the ecotone located at intermediate altitudes. Together with the contrasting highest density and species diversity of seeds at these altitudes, the ecotonal role of this habitat was confirmed. We found evidence that lower altitudes could act as storage for seeds of some species growing at higher altitudes; the role of the ecotone was more prominent as a reserve for the meadow plant seeds than the role of the forest as a reserve for seeds of the meadow and ecotone habitats. Soil seed banks, particularly from the ecotone, can be used for restoring vegetation in some degraded sites.