In temperate regions, the budburst date of deciduous trees is mainly regulated by temperature variation, but the exact nature of the temperature dependence has been a matter of debate. One hypothesis is that budburst date depends purely on the accumulation of warm temperature; a competing hypothesis states that exposure to cold temperatures is also important for budburst. In this study, variability in budburst is evaluated using 15 years of budburst data for 17 tree species at Harvard Forest. We compare two budburst hypotheses through reversible jump Markov chain Monte Carlo. We then investigate how uncertainties in budburst date mapped onto uncertainties in ecosystem carbon using the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory's LM3 land model. For 15 of 17 species, we find that more complicated budburst models that account for a chilling period are favored over simpler models that do not include such dependence. LM3 simulations show that the choice of budburst model induces differences in the timing of carbon uptake commencement of ∼11 days, in the magnitude of April–May carbon uptake of ∼1.03 g C m−2 day−1, and in total ecosystem carbon stocks of ∼2 kg C m−2. While the choice of whether to include a chilling period in the budburst model strongly contributes to this variability, another important factor is how the species-dependent field data gets mapped onto LM3's single deciduous plant functional type (PFT). We conclude budburst timing has a strong impact on simulated CO2 fluxes, and uncertainty in the fluxes can be substantially reduced by improving the model's representation of PFT diversity.