Here, we ask how mean climate and climate variation at individual sites and across a species’ range affect the specialist-generalist spectrum of germination strategies exhibited by 10 arid land forbs. We investigated these relationships using climate data for the western United States, occurrence records from herbaria, and germination trials with field-collected seeds, and predicted that generalist strategies would be most common in species that experience a high degree of climate variation or occur over a wide range of conditions. We used two metrics to describe variation in germination strategies: (a) selectivity (did seeds require specific cues to germinate?) and (b) population-level variation (did populations differ in their responses to germination cues?) in germination displayed by each species. Species exhibited distinct germination strategies, with some species demonstrating as much among-population variation as we observed among species. Modeling efforts suggested that generalist strategies evolve in response to higher spatial variation in actual evapotranspiration at a local scale and in available water in the spring and annual precipitation at a range-wide scale. Describing the conditions that lead to variation in early life-history traits is important for understanding the evolution of diversity in natural systems, as well as the possible responses of individual species to global climate change.