Lianas are an important growthform in tropical forests, and liana abundance and biomass may be increasing in some regions. Explanations for liana proliferation hinge upon physiological responses to changing resource conditions that would favour them over trees. Testing a chemical basis for such responses, we assessed 22 foliar traits in 778 lianas and 6496 trees at 48 tropical forest sites. Growthform differences in chemical allocation occurred on a leaf mass and area basis. Light capture-growth and maintenance-metabolism chemicals averaged 14.5 and 16.7% higher mass-based concentration in lianas than in trees globally, whereas structure and defence chemicals averaged 9.0% lower in lianas. Relative differences in chemical allocation by lianas and trees were mediated by climate with peak differences at about 2500 mm year−1 and 25 °C. Differences in chemical traits suggest that liana expansion could be greatest in forests undergoing increased canopy-level irradiance via disturbance and climate change.