Leaf expansion rate varies with leaf temperature, photon flux density (PPFD), evaporative demand and soil water status. In most simulation models, it is calculated every day by multiplying the amount of carbohydrate available to leaves by specific leaf area (SLA). However, leaf expansion rate is considerably reduced by mild water deficits which do not affect photosynthesis, and is not affected by a reduction in the PPFD intercepted during rapid leaf expansion. Specific leaf area undergoes a several-fold variability depending on PPFD, soil water status and time of day. It is increased when environmental conditions have a greater depressive effect on expansion rate than on photosynthesis, and is decreased in the opposite case. It is therefore appropriate to model leaf expansion independently of the plant carbon budget. Consistent characteristics can be deduced from a series of experiments, allowing a model of leaf expansion to be proposed. (i) Time courses of relative leaf expansion rate and of epidermal cell division rate are well conserved within a plant and across a large range of environmental conditions, provided that durations and rates are expressed in thermal time. Maximum relative rates are common to all zones of a leaf and to all leaves of a plant, in maize and sunflower. (ii) A water deficit, or a reduction in intercepted PPFD, imposed in the first half of the period of leaf development affects the relative expansion rate in the deficit only, but permanently affects the absolute expansion rate. In contrast, a reduction in PPFD causes no effect on leaf expansion if imposed in the rapid expansion period when the leaf is autotrophic. (iii) Expansion rate is related to evaporative demand and to the concentration of ABA in the xylem sap with relationships that apply under both field and laboratory conditions. (iv) Tissue expansion and epidermal cell division behave as independent processes which determine epidermal cell area at each time.