Abstract Respiration in plants is generally observed to comprise two components: one proportional to the growth rate and the other to the plant dry mass. These components are usually interpreted as being related to the growth of new plant material and maintenance of existing plant material, respectively. By analysing data in this way, the respiratory costs of both structural synthesis and maintenance are observed to be greater in the root than the shoot. This contradicts current understanding of the biochemistry of the processes involved. The basic model is developed to incorporate three additional processes. The first is the cost of ion uptake for plant growth. The second allows for the fact that the site of nitrogen assimilation into amino acids may differ from the site of utilization for protein synthesis: when ammonium is supplied, this is incorporated immediately into amino acids owing to its toxicity to the plants; when nitrate is supplied it may be reduced either in the shoot or root, or both, and subsequently transported around the plant for utilization. The third process to be included is an energy cost for the uptake of ions to balance efflux from the root system. The theory is consistent with experimental observation and provides a means of understanding and interpreting respiration and nitrogen metabolism in plants.