Functional traits are increasingly used to understand the ecology of plants and to predict their responses to global changes. Unfortunately, trait data are unavailable for the majority of plant species. The lack of trait data is especially prevalent for hard-to-measure traits and for tropical plant species, potentially owing to the many inherent difficulties of working with species in remote, hyperdiverse rainforest systems. The living collections of botanic gardens provide convenient access to large numbers of tropical plant species and can potentially be used to quickly augment trait databases and advance our understanding of species’ responses to climate change. In this review, we quantitatively assess the availability of trait data for tropical versus temperate
species, the diversity of species available for sampling in several exemplar tropical botanic gardens and the validity of garden-based leaf and root trait measurements. Our analyses support the contention that the living collections of botanic gardens are a valuable scientific resource that can contribute significantly to research on plant functional ecology and conservation. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Biological collections for understanding biodiversity in the Anthropocene’.