The response of trees to rising atmospheric CO2 concentration ([CO2]) is of concern to forest ecologists and global carbon modellers and is the focus of an increasing body of research work. I review studies published up to May 1994, and several unpublished works, which reported at least one of the following: net CO2 assimilation (A), stomatal conductance (gs), leaf dark respiration (Rd) leaf nitrogen or specific leaf area (SLA) in woody plants grown at <400 μmol mol−1 CO2 or at 600–800 μmol mol−1 CO2. The resulting data from 41 species were categorized according to growth conditions (unstressed versus stressed), length of CO2 exposure, pot size and exposure facility [growth chamber (GC), greenhouse (GH), or open-top chamber (OTC)] and interpreted using meta-analytic methods. Overall, A showed a large and significant increase at elevated [CO2] but length of CO2 exposure and the exposure facility were important modifiers of this response. Plants exposed for < 50 d had a significantly greater response, and those from GCs had a significantly lower response than plants from longer exposures or from OTC studies. Negative acclimation of A was significant and general among stressed plants, but in unstressed plants was influenced by length of CO2 exposure, the exposure facility and/or pot size. Growth at elevated [CO2] resulted in moderate reductions in gs in unstressed plants, but there was no significant effect of CO2 on gs in stressed plants. Leaf dark respiration (mass or area basis) was reduced strongly by growth at high [CO2] > while leaf N was reduced only when expressed on a mass basis. This review is the first meta-analysis of elevated CO2 studies and provides statistical confirmation of several general responses of trees to elevated [CO2]. It also highlights important areas of continued uncertainty in our understanding of these responses.