Water–energy dynamics are often correlated with geographical patterns of terrestrial plant richness. However, the relative importance of water and energy on species richness is still being debated. Some studies suggest a transition in the relative importance of water and energy along a latitudinal gradient, i.e. that water is the most important factor at low latitudes, whereas energy is the leading factor at high latitudes. The generality of this transition is yet to be established and is the focus of the current study. In particular, we examine whether differences in the evolutionary histories of two subgenera of Asian oaks influence the derived models of water–energy dynamics.