Plant carbon : nitrogen : phosphorus (C:N:P) ratios are powerful indicators of diverse ecological processes. During plant development and growth, plant C:N:P stoichiometry responds to environmental conditions and physiological constraints. However, variations caused by effects of sampling (i.e. sampling date, leaf age and root size) often have been neglected in previous studies. We investigated the relative contributions of sampling date, leaf age, root size and species identity to stoichiometric flexibility in a field mesocosm study and a natural grassland in Inner Mongolia. We found that sampling date, leaf age, root size and species identity all significantly affected C:N:P stoichiometry both in the pot study as well as in the field. Overall, C:N and C:P ratios increased significantly over time and with increasing leaf age and root size, while the dynamics of N:P ratios depended on species identity. Our results suggest that attempts to synthesize C:N:P stoichiometry data across studies that span regional to global scales and include many species need to better account for temporal variation.