© 2015 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved. Recent warming significantly advanced leaf onset in the northern hemisphere. This signal cannot be accurately reproduced by current models parameterized by daily mean temperature (T<inf>mean</inf>). Here using in situ observations of leaf unfolding dates (LUDs) in Europe and the United States, we show that the interannual anomalies of LUD during 1982-2011 are triggered by daytime (T<inf>max</inf>) more than by nighttime temperature (T<inf>min</inf>). Furthermore, an increase of 1°C in T<inf>max</inf> would advance LUD by 4.7 days in Europe and 4.3 days in the United States, more than the conventional temperature sensitivity estimated from T<inf>mean</inf>. The triggering role of T<inf>max</inf>, rather than the T<inf>min</inf> or T<inf>mean</inf> variable, is also supported by analysis of the large-scale patterns of satellite-derived vegetation green-up in spring in the northern hemisphere (>30°N). Our results suggest a new conceptual framework of leaf onset using daytime temperature to improve the performance of phenology modules in current Earth system models.