Pristine river corridors were characterized by island and floodplain development driven by the inter-play of flows, sediments and woody vegetation. Here we explore these relationships within topographically controlled settings within the upper, middle and lower reaches of a large, semi-natural alpine to mediterranean river. These reaches have expanding or contracting valley floors within which we show that there are more or less predictable patterns of stream power and rates of vegetation growth, reflecting water availability during dry periods and also the availability of sand and finer sediment. We relate these to the pattern of island distribution that is repeated within the three reaches and is indicative of the engineering role of riparian trees. Islands are shown to develop within thresholds defined by stream power, rates of woody vegetation growth and rates of sedimentation, and to develop most quickly where riparian species include those capable of sprouting from driftwood. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.