Summary Aim Our aim was to understand how similarity changes with distance in biological communities, to use the distance decay perspective as quantitative technique to describe biogeographic pattern, and to explore whether growth form, dispersal type, rarity, or support affected the rate of distance decay in similarity. Location North American spruce-fir forests, Appalachian montane spruce-fir forests. Methods We estimated rates of distance decay through regression of log-transformed compositional similarity against distance for pairwise comparisons of thirty-four white spruce plots and twenty-six black spruce plots distributed from eastern Canada to Alaska, six regional floras along the crest of the Appalachians, and six regional floras along the east–west extent of the boreal forest. Results Similarity decreased significantly with distance, with the most linear models relating the log of similarity to untransformed distance. The rate of similarity decay was 1.5–1.9 times higher for vascular plants than for bryophytes. The rate of distance decay was highest for berry-fruited and nut-bearing species (1.7 times higher than plumose-seeded species and 1.9 times higher than microseeded/spore species) and 2.1 times higher for herbs than woody plants. There was no distance decay for rare species, while species of intermediate frequency had 2.0 times higher distance decay rates than common species. The rate of distance decay was 2.7 times higher for floras from the fragmented Appalachians than for floras from the contiguous boreal forest. Main conclusions The distance decay of similarity can be caused by either a decrease in environmental similarity with distance (e.g. climatic gradients) or by limits to dispersal and niche width differences among taxa. Regardless of cause, the distance decay of similarity provides a simple descriptor of how biological diversity is distributed and therefore has consequences for conservation strategy.