Abstract. We developed a description of a central New England deciduous hardwood forest based on the distribution within the community of morphological and life history traits (N= 34) and environmental factors. Classification by TWINSPAN of 186 species based on morphological and life history traits identified six major functional groups of species largely corresponding to growth form. A data matrix of plots x traits was ordinated using PCA. Each of the resulting four PCA axes was associated with a major environmental gradient: drainage, site exposure, disturbance due to past land use and degree of disturbance in the 1938 New England Hurricane (24.9, 19.8, 11.7 and 8.4% of the variation respectively). Two patterns suggested that a suite of potentially functional traits, rather than a few key characters (e.g. vital attributes), govern the distribution of species in this community: (1) each of the four axes was largely associated with a different group of traits and (2) each axis was associated with several traits that appeared to sort independently (i.e. not to co-occur within species). Evaluating one often-examined trait, there was no evidence that dispersal ability limited the colonization of species into secondary woodlands. We also found that landscape-scale abundance was associated with a small number of traits. Production of fleshy fruits and few diaspores per plant were positively associated with landscape-level abundance. Our results suggest that attempts to understand the overall structure and function of this plant community based on a few key characters, such as dispersal ability, will meet with limited success. However, when focusing on one aspect of the community, such as frequency across the landscape, relatively few characters may be important.