The relative importance of environmental filtering, biotic interactions and neutral processes in community assembly remains an openly debated question and one that is increasingly addressed using phylogenetic approaches. Closely related species may occur together more frequently than expected (phylogenetic clustering) if environmental filtering operates on traits with significant phylogenetic signal. Recent studies show that phylogenetic clustering tends to increase with spatial scale, presumably because greater environmental variation is encompassed at larger spatial scales, providing opportunities for species to sort across environmental gradients. However, if environmental filtering is the cause of species sorting along environmental gradients, then environmental variation rather than spatial scale per se should drive the processes governing community assembly. Using species abundance and light availability data from a long-term experiment in Minnesota oak savanna understory communities, we explicitly test the hypothesis that greater environmental variation results in greater phylogenetic clustering when spatial scale is held constant. Concordant with previous studies, we found that phylogenetic community structure varied with spatial extent. At the landscape scale (~1000 ha), communities were phylogenetically clustered. At the local scale (0.375ha), phylogenetic community structure varied among plots. As hypothesized, plots encompassing the greatest environmental variation in light availability exhibited the strongest phylogenetic clustering. We also found strong correlations between species functional traits, particularly specific leaf area (SLA) and perimeter per area (PA), and species light availability niche. There was also a phylogenetic signal in both functional traits and species light availability niche, providing a mechanistic explanation for phylogenetic clustering in relation to light availability. We conclude that the pattern of increased phylogenetic clustering with increased environmental variation is a consequence of environmental filtering acting on phylogenetically conserved functional traits. These results indicate that the importance of environmental filtering in community assembly depends not on spatial scale per se, but on the steepness of the environmental gradient.