• allometry;
  • chaparral;
  • coastal sage;
  • Mojave Desert vegetation;
  • plant economics;
  • sclerophylly;
  • stiffness;
  • strength


  1. The mechanical resistance of leaves has key ecological implications but its basis has not been well understood, particularly at the tissue scale. We tested the hypotheses that leaf mechanical resistance should be a function of tissue density, increasing from the lamina to the midrib, and higher in drought-tolerant than drought-avoiding species.
  2. In a common garden study, we quantified nine leaf biomechanical traits, including measurements of material and structural resistance, and in addition 17 morphological traits, at the tissue and whole-leaf scales, for 21 species from three semi-arid communities of California, USA.
  3. The mechanical properties of leaves depended strongly on tissue density. Material resistance was significantly greater in the midrib than in the leaf lamina, and tissue resistances were significantly correlated among tissues, lower in deciduous coastal sage species and higher in evergreen drought-tolerant chaparral species. The proportion of the biomass invested in the midrib was lower in species bearing midribs and laminas of high material resistance.
  4. Our results support the hypothesis of a hierarchical partitioning of leaf mechanical resistance among leaf tissues reflecting the investment of dry mass. Also, our data indicated a mechanical compensation in leaf design, where leaves with high material resistance and density deploy a relatively minor proportion of support tissue in the midrib. Finally, our results establish a quantitative basis for differences among communities in leaf biomechanics. Our results supported the classical characterization of the mediterranean-climate flora of California according to the dramatic increase in the mean leaf mechanical resistance from species of coastal sage to chaparral, with diverse leaf types in the Mojave Desert species.