Autoecological data for north European trees were compiled from literature, field observations and comparisons of species distributions with bioclimatic maps. When compared with an independent dataset for the same species in montane south-central Europe, individual descriptors showed widely varying between-set correlations. Qualitative life-history descriptors were usually consistent between datasets; inconsistent shade-tolerance assignments (Acer platanoides, Fraxinus excelsior) may relfect overlooked changes in tolerance with age. Species' estimated bioclimatic limits were poorly correlated between datasets. Forest succession models will gain reliability by eliminating unreliable descriptors such as maximum tree diamter, dealing appropriately with ontogenetic changes in key attrobutes such as shade tolerance, and incorporating climate-response functions based on explicit physiological constraints.