The climbing habit is an evolutionary key innovation in plants because it is associated with enhanced clade diversification. We tested whether patterns of species divergence and variation of three ecophysiological traits that are fundamental for plant adaptation to light environments (maximum photosynthetic rate [A(max)], dark respiration rate [R(d)], and specific leaf area [SLA]) are consistent with this key innovation. Using data reported from four tropical forests and three temperate forests, we compared phylogenetic distance among species as well as the evolutionary rate, phylogenetic distance and phylogenetic signal of those traits in lianas and trees. Estimates of evolutionary rates showed that R(d) evolved faster in lianas, while SLA evolved faster in trees. The mean phylogenetic distance was 1.2 times greater among liana species than among tree species. Likewise, estimates of phylogenetic distance indicated that lianas were less related than by chance alone (phylogenetic evenness across 63 species), and trees were more related than expected by chance (phylogenetic clustering across 71 species). Lianas showed evenness for R(d), while trees showed phylogenetic clustering for this trait. In contrast, for SLA, lianas exhibited phylogenetic clustering and trees showed phylogenetic evenness. Lianas and trees showed patterns of ecophysiological trait variation among species that were independent of phylogenetic relatedness. We found support for the expected pattern of greater species divergence in lianas, but did not find consistent patterns regarding ecophysiological trait evolution and divergence. R(d) followed the species-level pattern, i.e., greater divergence/evolution in lianas compared to trees, while the opposite occurred for SLA and no pattern was detected for A(max). R(d) may have driven lianas' divergence across forest environments, and might contribute to diversification in climber clades.