1 If different factors inhibiting plant growth, e.g. low rainfall or low soil nutrients, were to select for species that have similar constellations of traits, then the unfavourable factors might usefully be grouped together as ‘stress’.
2 We offer a method for assessing this issue. A species mixture at a site is described by a point on a plane with two traits as axes. Change along an environmental gradient is then represented as a trajectory across the trait-plane. Trajectories along different environmental gradients are compared.
3 We measured leaf width, specific leaf area (SLA) and mature canopy height for the 386 perennial species found at 46 sites spread along rainfall and soil total phosphorus gradients in south-eastern Australia. Each trait was lognormally distributed across species within sites, hence the mean of log10(trait) satisfactorily described the species mixture at each site.
4 Combinations of assemblage-mean leaf width with SLA followed similar trajectories as rainfall and soil total P decreased. For these traits in this setting, the method indicated that low rainfall and low soil P favour similar trait-combinations.
5 Mature plant height also decreased along both rainfall and soil P gradients, and thus was positively correlated with leaf width and SLA at the level of assemblage means. The rainfall trajectories involving height behaved differently from the soil P trajectories, especially at rainfalls below c. 400 mm year−1, where assemblage-mean height declined much further than at low soil P.
6 Across all species, traits were only very loosely correlated (r2 from 0.04 to 0.17). For leaf width and SLA, evolutionary divergences were positively correlated, both before and after cross-correlation with divergence in rainfall and soil P was removed. This latter measures evolutionary divergence correlation within habitat. For height the picture was more complicated. Considering these within-habitat divergence correlations, species that were taller at maturity tended to have lower SLA and leaf width. This pattern is the reverse of the broad geographical correlation of assemblage means, showing that the patterns across assemblages result from species being selectively sifted from the regional flora into sites, not from evolutionary or cross-species correlations.
7 The trait-combination trajectory approach showed some commonalities between low soil nutrient and low rainfall habitats with regard to traits favoured in species occurring there, but also some differences. The approach has potential for clarifying which environmental factors can usefully be grouped together as ‘stress’, and which trait combinations can usefully be regarded as part of a syndrome favoured by stress.