Woody plants store large quantities of carbon (C) and nutrients. As plants senesce and decay, these stores transfer to the soil or other organisms or are released to the atmosphere. Exogenous factors such as topographic position and microclimatic and edaphic conditions tied to locations affect decay rates; however, we know less about how exogenous relative to endogenous factors such as morphological, anatomical and chemical construction tied to plant species affect these rates, especially across different tissue types. We monitored stem, fine branch and leaf decay over 1 year in 'rot plots' distributed across four watersheds in ridge top and valley bottom habitats in a temperate deciduous oak-hickory forest at Tyson Research Center, MO, USA, in the Ozark Highlands for 21 species of woody plants that vary in their constructions. We found poor coordination across tissues in construction and decay, which likely reflects how functional constraints on living tissues influence recalcitrance to decay. Additionally, for all three tissues, species membership and construction were better predictors of decay than was location. Of the construction traits, chemical composition including total fibre, lignin, cellulose, hemicellulose and concentrations of multiple microelements were the best predictors of decay, although the strength of these relationships differed among tissues. Synthesis. We have long known that rates of biogeochemical cycling are influenced by exogenous factors, such as climatic and edaphic factors. Here, we show across plant tissues that endogenous factors, including species identity and tissue construction, can have stronger controls on rates of decay within our study system than do exogenous factors. However, it is likely that the relative strengths of these different controls change through time and among tissues. We predict that anatomical and morphological controls may be more important at early stages and exogenous factors may be more important at later stages of decay.