We used a 10-year record of the CO2 flux by an old growth boreal forest in central Manitoba (the Northern Old Black Spruce Site (NOBS)), a ∼150-year-old Picea mariana [Mill.] stand) to determine whether and how whole-forest CO2 flux is related to tree ring width. We compared a 37-year ring width chronology collected at NOBS to a second chronology that was collected at a nearby Black Spruce stand with a different disturbance history, and also to three measures of annual whole-forest photosynthesis [gross ecosystem production (GEP)], two measures of annual respiration (R), and one measure of annual carbon balance [net ecosystem production (NEP)]. The year-to-year ring width fluctuations were well correlated between the two sites; increasing our confidence in the NOBS chronology and implying that ring width variation is driven and synchronized by the physical environment. Both chronologies exhibited serial correlation, with a fluctuation in ring width that had an apparent periodicity of ∼7 years. Neither chronology was correlated with variation in annual precipitation or temperature. Ring width and NEP increased, while R decreased from 1995 to 2004. GEP either remained constant or decreased from 1995 to 2004, depending on which measure was considered. The lack of relationship between ring width and GEP may indicate that ring growth is controlled almost entirely by something other than carbon uptake. Alternative explanations for the ring width chronologies include the possibility that wood production varies as a result of shifts in respiration, or that an unidentified aspect of the environment, rather than the balance between GEP and respiration, controls wood production. The serial correlation in ring width may be related to increases and decreases in carbohydrate pools, or to gradual changes in nutrient availability, pathogens, herbivores, soil frost or soil water table. The cause or causes of serial correlation, and the controls on the allocation of photosynthate to wood production, emerge as critical uncertainties for efforts in predicting the carbon balance of boreal ecosystems and inferring past climate from tree rings. © 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.