Plant litter represents a major basal resource in streams, where its decomposition is partly regulated by litter traits. Litter-trait variation may determine the latitudinal gradient in decomposition in streams, which is mainly microbial in the tropics and detritivore-mediated at high latitudes. However, this hypothesis remains untested, as we lack information on large-scale trait variation for riparian litter. Variation cannot easily be inferred from existing leaf-trait databases, since nutrient resorption can cause traits of litter and green leaves to diverge. Here we present the first global-scale assessment of riparian litter quality by determining latitudinal variation (spanning 107°) in litter traits (nutrient concentrations; physical and chemical defences) of 151 species from 24 regions and their relationships with environmental factors and phylogeny. We hypothesized that litter quality would increase with latitude (despite variation within regions) and traits would be correlated to produce 'syndromes' resulting from phylogeny and environmental variation. We found lower litter quality and higher nitrogen:phosphorus ratios in the tropics. Traits were linked but showed no phylogenetic signal, suggesting that syndromes were environmentally determined. Poorer litter quality and greater phosphorus limitation towards the equator may restrict detritivore-mediated decomposition, contributing to the predominance of microbial decomposers in tropical streams.