1. Fire and frost represent two major hurdles for the persistence of trees in open grassy biomes and have both been proposed as drivers of grassland-forest boundaries in Africa. 2. We assess the response of young tree seedlings, which represent a vulnerable stage in tree recruitment, to traumatic fire and frost disturbances. 3. In a greenhouse experiment, we investigated how seedling traits predicted survival and resprouting ability in response to fire versus frost; we characterized survival strategies of seedlings in response to the two disturbances, and we documented how the architecture of surviving seedlings is affected by fire versus frost injury. 4. Survival rates were similar under both treatments. However, different species displayed different levels of sensitivity to fire and frost. Seedling survival was higher for older seedlings and seedlings with more basal leaves. Survivors of a fire event lost more biomass than the survivors of a frost event. However, the architecture of recovered fire- and frost-treated seedlings was mostly similar. Seedlings that recovered from fire and frost treatments were often shorter than those that had not been exposed to any disturbance, with multiple thin branches, which may increase vulnerability to the next frost or fire event. 5. Synthesis. Fire caused more severe aboveground damage compared with a single frost event, suggesting that fire is an important driver of tree distribution in these open grassland systems. However, the impact of repeated frost events may be equally severe and needs to be investigated. Also, woody species composition may be influenced by phenomena that affect the timing and frequency of seedling exposure to damage, as mortality was found to be dependent on seedling age. Therefore, changes in fire regime and climate are likely to result in changes in the composition and the structure of the woody components of these systems.