• adaptation;
  • categorical data;
  • character correlation;
  • contingency tables;
  • data coding;
  • ecological wood anatomy;
  • evolution;
  • relative risk;
  • vasicentric tracheids

Despite collecting copious amounts of data, wood anatomists rarely perform appropriate statistical analyses, especially in the case of categorical variables. Nevertheless, anatomists have succeeded in identifying strong ecological trends. We show that, with only a slightly more sophisticated analysis, the strength and significance of ‘well-known’ associations can be quantified, and new associations pinpointed. Using logistic regression to reanalyse the classic Carlquist and Hoekman data set for the southern Californian flora, we show strong support for the notion that true tracheid presence lowers vessel grouping; in contrast, vasicentric tracheids are associated with a diversity of vessel grouping strategies. We show that statistical models can refine anatomical interpretations by identifying unusual species. For example, Fremontodendron californicum and Baccharis salicifolia (= B. glutinosa) were identified as unusual in lacking vasicentric tracheids; a consultation of preparations revealed that they are indeed present. For purposes of ecological wood anatomy, anatomical terminology should reflect cell function; we suggest that terminological systems that yield better predictive power in statistical models such as ours are preferable. Finally, we make recommendations ranging from the statistical, e.g. the need to check assumptions and the need for the inclusion of phylogeny, to the biological, e.g. gathering data expressly designed to test functional hypotheses rather than all of the information in standardized lists. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 154, 331–351.