The frequency and duration of water on leaf surfaces have important consequences for plant growth and photosynthetic gas exchange. The objective of the present study was to compare the frequency and duration of leaf wetness under natural field conditions among species and to identify variation in structural features of leaves that may reduce surface wetness. During June–September 1992 in the central Rocky Mountains (USA), natural leaf wetting due to rain and dewfall was observed on 79 of 89 nights in open meadow habitats compared to only 29 of 89 nights in the understorey. Dew formation occurred at relative humidities that were often well below 100% because of radiational heat exchange with cold night skies and low wind speeds (< 0.5 m s−1). A survey of 50 subalpine/montane species showed that structural characteristics associated with the occurrence and duration of leaf surface wetness differed among species and habitats. Both adaxial and abaxial surfaces accumulated moisture during rain and dewfall events. Leaf surfaces of open-meadow species were less wettable (P= 0.008), and had lower droplet retention (P= 0.015) and more stomata P= 0.017) than adjacent understorey species. Also, leaf trichomes reduced the area of leaf surface covered by moisture. Ecophysiological importance is suggested by the high frequency of leaf wetting events in open microsites, influences on growth and gas exchange, and correspondence between leaf surface wettability and habitat.