Highly variable distributions of yttrium and rare earth elements (Y+REEs) are documented in pelitic garnet from the Picuris Mountains, New Mexico, and from Passo del Sole, Switzerland, and in mafic garnet from the Franciscan Complex, California. The wide variety of these Y+REE zoning patterns, and those described previously in other occurrences, imply diverse origins linked to differing degrees of mobility of these elements through the intergranular medium during garnet growth. In the Picuris Mountains, large, early-nucleating crystals have radial profiles of Y+REE dominated by central peaks and annular maxima, in patterns that vary systematically with atomic number. Superimposed on these features are narrow spikes in HREEs and MREEs, located progressively rimward with decreasing atomic number. In contrast, profiles in small, late-nucleating crystals contain only broad central maxima for all Y+REEs. In garnet from Passo del Sole, Y+REE zoning varies radically from sample to sample: in some rocks, crystals of all sizes display only central peaks for all Y+REEs; in others, profiles exhibit irregular fluctuations in Y+REE contents that match up with small-scale patchy zoning in Y and Ca X-ray maps. In the Franciscan Complex, Y+REE in garnet cores fluctuate unsystematically, but mantles and rims display concentric oscillatory zoning for both major elements and Y+REEs. Our interpretation of the complexity of Y+REE distributions in metamorphic garnet centres on the concept that these distributions vary primarily in response to the length scales over which these elements can equilibrate during garnet growth. Very short length scales of equilibration, due to low intergranular mobility, produce overprint zoning characterized by small-scale irregularities. Higher but still restricted mobility yields diffusion-controlled uptake, characterized by patterns of central peaks and annular maxima that vary with atomic number and are strongly influenced by T–t paths during garnet growth. Still greater mobility permits progressively greater, potentially rock-wide, equilibration with major- and accessory-phase assemblages, leading to mineralogical controls: an unchanging mineral assemblage during garnet growth produces bell-shaped profiles resembling those produced by Rayleigh fractionation, whereas changes in major- and/or accessory-phase assemblages produce profiles with distinct annuli and sharp discontinuities in concentration. The very high mobility associated with influxes of Y+REE-bearing fluids can cause these element distributions to be dominated by factors external to the rock, yielding profiles characterized by abrupt shifts or oscillations that are not correlated to changes in mineral assemblages.