Field, laboratory, and numerical modelling research are increasingly demonstrating the potential of riparian tree colonization and growth to influence fluvial dynamics and the evolution of fluvial landforms. This paper jointly analyses multi-temporal, multispectral ASTER data, continuous river stage and discharge data, and field observations of the growth rates of the dominant riparian tree species (Populus nigra) along a 21 km reach of the Tagliamento River, Italy. Research focuses on the period 2004–2009, during which there was a bankfull flood on 24 October 2004, followed by 2 years with low water levels, nearly 2 years with only modest flow pulses, and then a final period from 15 August 2008 that included several intermediate to bankfull flow events. This study period of increasing flow disturbance allows the exploration of vegetation dynamics within the river's active corridor under changing flow conditions. The analysis demonstrates the utility of ASTER data for investigating vegetation dynamics along large fluvial corridors and reveals both spatial and temporal variations in the expansion, coalescence, and erosion of vegetated patches within the study reach. Changes in the extent of the vegetated area and its dynamics vary along the study reach. In sub-reaches where riparian tree growth is vigorous, the vegetated area expands rapidly during time periods without channel-shaping flows, and is subsequently able to resist erosion by bankfull floods. In contrast, in sub-reaches where tree growth is less vigorous, the vegetated area expands at a slower rate and is more readily re-set by bankfull flood events. This illustrates that the rate of growth of riparian trees is crucial to their ability to contribute actively to river corridor dynamics. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.