Global change is expected to lead to range shifts of plant species. The ecological mechanisms underpinning these shifts are currently not well understood. Here, we compared ecological responses possibly underlying southern range contraction and northern range expansion of Empetrum nigrum, a key species in northern heathlands, which may be related to global change. We hypothesized a negative response to warming in the 'south' (i.e.the Netherlands) and a positive response at the northern range margin (the tundra on Svalbard). Open top chambers (OTCs) were used to simulate global warming. In the 'south', OTC warming caused enhanced shoot growth and growth rate, biomass increment, advanced phenology, larger and heavier berries of Empetrum, while its growing season was extended by 75 days. Under OTC warming co-occurring Calluna vulgaris also showed an increased growing season length (by 98 days) as well as increased shoot growth rate and biomass growth, plant cover and height. Still, we found no evidence for increased competitiveness relative to Empetrum. In the 'north', Empetrum responded with increased shoot and biomass growth, enhanced berry development and ripening to warming. These responses exceeded those of co-occurring Cassiope tetragona with the exception of its biomass response. The direct and indirect ecological responses found do not readily explain the observed northward retreat of Empetrum at the southern range margin. The direct ecological responses found at its northern range margin are, on the other hand, in line with the increased occurrences of this species on Svalbard. © 2012 IOP Publishing Ltd.