The relative roles of temperature and day length in driving spring leaf unfolding are known for few species, limiting our ability to predict phenology under climate warming. Using experimental data, we assess the importance of photoperiod as a leaf-out regulator in 173 woody species from throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and we also infer the influence of winter duration, temperature seasonality, and inter-annual temperature variability. We combine results from climate- and light-controlled chambers with species’ native climate niches inferred from georeferenced occurrences and range maps. Of the 173 species, only 35% relied on spring photoperiod as a leaf-out signal. Contrary to previous suggestions, these species come from lower latitudes, whereas species from high latitudes with long winters leafed out independent of photoperiod. The strong effect of species’ geographic–climatic history on phenological strategies complicates the prediction of community-wide phenological change.