Aim: This first global quantification of the relationship between leaf traits and soil nutrient fertility reflects the trade-off between growth and nutrient conservation. The power of soils versus climate in predicting leaf trait values is assessed in bivariate and multivariate analyses and is compared with the distribution of growth forms (as a discrete classification of vegetation) across gradients of soil fertility and climate. Location: All continents except for Antarctica. Methods: Data on specific leaf area (SLA), leaf N concentration (LNC), leaf P concentration (LPC) and leaf N:P were collected for 474 species distributed across 99 sites (809 records), together with abiotic information from each study site. Individual and combined effects of soils and climate on leaf traits were quantified using maximum likelihood methods. Differences in occurrence of growth form across soil fertility and climate were determined by one-way ANOVA. Results: There was a consistent increase in SLA, LNC and LPC with increasing soil fertility. SLA was related to proxies of N supply, LNC to both soil total N and P and LPC was only related to proxies of P supply. Soil nutrient measures explained more variance in leaf traits among sites than climate in bivariate analysis. Multivariate analysis showed that climate interacted with soil nutrients for SLA and area-based LNC. Mass-based LNC and LPC were determined mostly by soil fertility, but soil P was highly correlated to precipitation. Relationships of leaf traits to soil nutrients were stronger than those of growth form versus soil nutrients. In contrast, climate determined distribution of growth form more strongly than it did leaf traits. Main conclusions: We provide the first global quantification of the trade-off between traits associated with growth and resource conservation 'strategies' in relation to soil fertility. Precipitation but not temperature affected this trade-off. Continuous leaf traits might be better predictors of plant responses to nutrient supply than growth form, but growth forms reflect important aspects of plant species distribution with climate.