Seasonality and interannual variability in North American photosynthetic activity reflect potential patterns of climate variability. We simulate 24 yr (1983–2006) and evaluate regional and seasonal contribution to annual mean gross primary productivity (GPP) as well as its interannual variability. The highest productivity occurs in Mexico, the southeast United States and the Pacific Northwest. Annual variability is largest in tropical Mexico, the desert Southwest and the Midwestern corridor. We find that no single region or season consistently determines continental annual GPP anomaly. GPP variability is dependent upon soil moisture availability in low- and mid-latitudes, and temperature in the north. Soil moisture is a better predictor than precipitation as it integrates precipitation events temporally. The springtime anomaly is the most frequent seasonal contributor to the annual GPP variability. No climate mode (i.e. ENSO, NAM) can be associated with annual or seasonal variability over the entire continent. We define a region extending from the Northeast United States through the midwest and into the southwestern United States and northern Mexico that explains a significant fraction of the variability in springtime GPP. We cannot correlate this region to a single mechanism (i.e. temperature, precipitation or soil moisture) or mode of climate variability.