The effect of plant species on erosion processes may be decisive for long-term soil protection in degraded ecosystems. The identification of functional effect traits that predict species ability for erosion control would be of great interest for ecological restoration purposes. Flume experiments were carried out to investigate the effect of the root systems of three species having contrasted ecological requirements from eroded marly lands of the French Southern Alps [i.e. Robinia pseudo acacia (tree), Pinus nigra austriaca (tree) and Achnatherum calamagrostis (grass)], on concentrated flow erosion rates. Ten functional traits, describing plant morphological and biomechanical features, were measured on each tested sample. Analyses were performed to identify traits that determine plant root effects on erosion control. Erosion rates were lowest for samples of Robinia pseudo acacia, intermediate in Achnatherum calamagrostis and highest in Pinus nigra austriaca. The three species also differed strongly in their traits. Principal components analysis showed that the erosion-reducing potential of plant species was negatively correlated to root diameter and positively correlated to the percentage of fine roots. The results highlighted the role of small flexible roots in root reinforcement processes, and suggested the importance of high root surface and higher tensile strength for soil stabilization. By combining flume experiment to plant functional traits measurements, we identified root system features influencing plant species performance for soil protection against concentrated flow erosion. Plant functional traits related to species efficiency for erosion control represent useful tools to improve the diagnosis of land vulnerability to erosion, plant community resistance and the prediction of ecosystem functioning after ecological restoration. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.