Trees cover vast areas of the Earth's landmasses. They mitigate erosion, capture carbon dioxide, produce oxygen and support biodiversity, and also are a source of food, raw materials and energy for human populations. Understanding the growth cycles of trees is fundamental for many areas of research. Trees, like most other organisms, have evolved a circadian clock to synchronize their growth and development with the daily and seasonal cycles of the environment. These regular changes in light, daylength and temperature are perceived via a range of dedicated receptors and cause resetting of the circadian clock to local time. This allows anticipation of daily and seasonal fluctuations and enables trees to co-ordinate their metabolism and physiology to ensure vital processes occur at the optimal times. In this review, we explore the current state of knowledge concerning the regulation of growth and seasonal dormancy in trees, using information drawn from model systems such as Populus spp. © The Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press.