Question: What plant properties might define plant functional types (PFTs) for the analysis of global vegetation responses to climate change, and what aspects of the physical environment might be expected to predict the distributions of PFTs? Methods: We review principles to explain the distribution of key plant traits as a function of bioclimatic variables. We focus on those whole-plant and leaf traits that are commonly used to define biomes and PFTs in global maps and models. Results: Raunkiær's plant life forms (underlying most later classifications) describe different adaptive strategies for surviving low temperature or drought, while satisfying requirements for reproduction and growth. Simple conceptual models and published observations are used to quantify the adaptive significance of leaf size for temperature regulation, leaf consistency for maintaining transpiration under drought, and phenology for the optimization of annual carbon balance. A new compilation of experimental data supports the functional definition of tropical, warm-temperate, temperate and boreal phanerophytes based on mechanisms for withstanding low temperature extremes. Chilling requirements are less well quantified, but are a necessary adjunct to cold tolerance. Functional traits generally confer both advantages and restrictions; the existence of trade-offs contributes to the diversity of plants along bioclimatic gradients. Conclusions: Quantitative analysis of plant trait distributions against bioclimatic variables is becoming possible; this opens up new opportunities for PFT classification. A PFT classification based on bioclimatic responses will need to be enhanced by information on traits related to competition, successional dynamics and disturbance.