The aim of this study was to systematically analyze the potential and limitations of using plant functional trait observations from global databases versus in situ data to improve our understanding of vegetation impacts on ecosystem functional properties (EFPs). Using ecosystem photosynthetic capacity as an example, we first provide an objective approach to derive robust EFP estimates from gross primary productivity (GPP) obtained from eddy covariance flux measurements. Second, we investigate the impact of synchronizing EFPs and plant functional traits in time and space to evaluate their relationships, and the extent to which we can benefit from global plant trait databases to explain the variability of ecosystem photosynthetic capacity. Finally, we identify a set of plant functional traits controlling ecosystem photosynthetic capacity at selected sites. Suitable estimates of the ecosystem photosynthetic capacity can be derived from light response curve of GPP responding to radiation (photosynthetically active radiation or absorbed photosynthetically active radiation). Although the effect of climate is minimized in these calculations, the estimates indicate substantial interannual variation of the photosynthetic capacity, even after removing site-years with confounding factors like disturbance such as fire events. The relationships between foliar nitrogen concentration and ecosystem photosynthetic capacity are tighter when both of the measurements are synchronized in space and time. When using multiple plant traits simultaneously as predictors for ecosystem photosynthetic capacity variation, the combination of leaf carbon to nitrogen ratio with leaf phosphorus content explains the variance of ecosystem photosynthetic capacity best (adjusted R2 = 0.55). Overall, this study provides an objective approach to identify links between leaf level traits and canopy level processes and highlights the relevance of the dynamic nature of ecosystems. Synchronizing measurements of eddy covariance fluxes and plant traits in time and space is shown to be highly relevant to better understand the importance of intra- and interspecific trait variation on ecosystem functioning. © 2016 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.