Nonlinear relationships between species and their environments are believed common in ecology and evolution, including during angiosperms’ rise to dominance. Early angiosperms are thought of as woody evergreens restricted to warm, wet habitats. They have since expanded into numerous cold and dry places. This expansion may have included transitions across important environmental thresholds. To understand linear and nonlinear relationships between angiosperm structure and biogeographic distributions, we integrated large datasets of growth habits, conduit sizes, leaf phenologies, evolutionary histories, and environmental limits. We consider current-day patterns and develop a new evolutionary model to investigate processes that created them. The macroecological pattern was clear: herbs had lower minimum temperature and precipitation limits. In woody species, conduit sizes were smaller in evergreens and related to species’ minimum temperatures. Across evolutionary timescales, our new modeling approach found conduit sizes in deciduous species decreased linearly with minimum temperature limits. By contrast, evergreen species had a sigmoidal relationship with minimum temperature limits and an inflection overlapping freezing. These results suggest freezing represented an important threshold for evergreen but not deciduous woody angiosperms. Global success of angiosperms appears tied to a small set of alternative solutions when faced with a novel environmental threshold.