We investigated the connection between plant species diversity and climate by using a process-based, generic plant model. Different ‘species' were simulated by different values for certain growth-related model parameters. Subsequently, a wide range of values were tested in the framework of a ‘Monte Carlo' simulation for success; that is, the capability of each plant with these parameter combinations to reproduce itself during its lifetime. The range of successful parameter combinations approximated species diversity. This method was applied to a global grid, using daily atmospheric forcing from a climate model simulation. The computed distribution of plant ‘species' diversity compares very well with the observed, global-scale distribution of species diversity, reproducing the majority of ‘hot spot' areas of biodiversity. A sensitivity analysis revealed that the predicted pattern is very robust against changes of fixed model parameters. Analysis of the climatic forcing and of two additional sensitivity simulations demonstrated that the crucial factor leading to this distribution of diversity is the early stage of a plant's life when water availability is highly coupled to the variability in precipitation because in this stage root-zone storage of water is small. We used cluster analysis in order to extract common sets of species parameters, mean plant properties and biogeographic regions (biomes) from the model output. The successful ‘species' cannot be grouped into typical parameter combinations, which define the plant's functioning. However, the mean simulated plant properties, such as lifetime and growth, can be grouped into a few characteristic plant ‘prototypes', ranging from short-lived, fast growing plants, similar to grasses, to long-lived, slow growing plants, similar to trees. The classification of regions with respect to similar combinations of successful ‘species' yields a distribution of biomes similar to the observed distribution. Each biome has typical levels of climatic constraints, expressed for instance by the number of ‘rainy days' and ‘warm days'. The less the number of days favourable for growth, the greater the level of constraints and the less the ‘species' diversity. These results suggest that climate as a fundamental constraint can explain much of the global scale, observed distribution of plant species diversity.