Ecological theory is built on trade-offs, where trait differences among species evolved as adaptations to different environments. Trade-offs are often assumed to be bidirectional, where opposite ends of a gradient in trait values confer advantages in different environments. However, unidirectional benefits could be widespread if extreme trait values confer advantages at one end of an environmental gradient, whereas a wide range of trait values are equally beneficial at the other end. Here, we show that root traits explain species occurrences along broad gradients of temperature and water availability, but model predictions only resembled trade-offs in two out of 24 models. Forest species with low specific root length and high root tissue density (RTD) were more likely to occur in warm climates but species with high specific root length and low RTD were more likely to occur in cold climates. Unidirectional benefits were more prevalent than trade-offs: for example, species with large-diameter roots and high RTD were more commonly associated with dry climates, but species with the opposite trait values were not associated with wet climates. Directional selection for traits consistently occurred in cold or dry climates, whereas a diversity of root trait values were equally viable in warm or wet climates. Explicit integration of unidirectional benefits into ecological theory is needed to advance our understanding of the consequences of trait variation on species responses to environmental change.