Leaf phenology is key for regulating total growing-season mass and energy fluxes. Long-term temporal trends towards earlier leaf unfolding are observed across Northern Hemisphere forests. Phenological dates also vary between years, whereby end-of-season (EOS) dates correlate positively with start-of-season (SOS) dates and negatively with growing-season total net CO2 assimilation (Anet). These associations have been interpreted as the effect of a constrained leaf longevity or of premature carbon (C) sink saturation—with far-reaching consequences for long-term phenology projections under climate change and rising CO2. Here, we use multidecadal ground and remote-sensing observations to show that the relationships between Anet and EOS are opposite at the interannual and the decadal time scales. A decadal trend towards later EOS persists in parallel with a trend towards increasing Anet—in spite of the negative Anet–EOS relationship at the interannual scale. This finding is robust against the use of diverse observations and models. Results indicate that acclimation of phenology has enabled plants to transcend a constrained leaf longevity or premature C sink saturation over the course of several decades, leading to a more effective use of available light and a sustained extension of the vegetation CO2 uptake season over time.