Broad-scale richness gradients are closely associated with temperature and water availability. However, historical and evolutionary processes have also contributed to shape current diversity patterns. In this paper we focus on the potential influences of Pleistocene glaciation and phylogenetic niche conservatism (the tendency for traits to be maintained during diversification) on the tree diversity gradient in Chile, and we quantify its primary climatic correlates. Tree species richness is greatest at mid latitudes, particularly in the Andes and Coastal ranges, and decreases abruptly to the south and north. Regression tree analysis identified annual precipitation and annual temperature as the primary probable drivers of this gradient. Ice cover during the Last Glacial Maximum was also identified as an ‘important’ variable, but the contemporary and historical predictors are strongly collinear. Geographically weighted regression indicated that the relationships between richness and environmental variables vary regionally: the relationship between tree richness and precipitation is stronger in north-central Chile, whereas tree richness and temperature are most strongly associated in south-central Chile. By assigning each species the age of the family to which it belongs and averaging all species in each geographical unit, we also found that species from the oldest families are distributed mainly in mid to high latitudes and species from younger families are distributed mainly at lower latitudes. This pattern is closely associated with annual precipitation. Thus, the ecological component of tree richness follows contemporary climatic gradients of both energy and water, but the aridification of the Atacama Desert was an important driver over evolutionary time. The influence of recent Pleistocene glaciation remains unresolved but it cannot be discounted.