Global environmental changes are expected to alter the functional characteristics of understorey herb-layer communities, potentially affecting forest ecosystem functioning. However, little is known about what drives the variability of functional traits in forest understories. Here, we assessed the role of different environmental drivers in shaping the functional trait distribution of understorey herbs in fragmented forests across three spatial scales. We focused on 708 small, deciduous forest patches located in 16 agricultural landscape windows, spanning a 2500-km macroclimatic gradient across the temperate forest biome in Europe. We estimated the relative effect of patch-scale, landscape-scale and macroclimatic variables on the community mean and variation of plant height, specific leaf area and seed mass. Macroclimatic variables (monthly temperature and precipitation extremes) explained the largest proportion of variation in community trait means (on average 77% of the explained variation). In contrast, patch-scale factors dominated in explaining community trait variation (on average 68% of the explained variation). Notably, patch age, size and internal heterogeneity had a positive effect on the community-level variability. Landscape-scale variables explained only a minor part of the variation in both trait distribution properties. The variation explained by shared combinations of the variable groups was generally negligible. These findings highlight the importance of considering multiple spatial scales in predictions of environmental-change effects on the functionality of forest understories. We propose that forest management sustainability could benefit from conserving larger, historically continuous and internally heterogeneous forest patches to maximise ecosystem service diversity in rural landscapes. (C) 2018 Gesellschaft fur Okologie. Published by Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.