Stem photosynthesis can contribute significantly to woody plant carbon balance, particularly in times when leaves are absent or in ‘open’ crowns with sufficient light penetration. We explored the significance of woody tissue (stem) photosynthesis for the carbon income in three California native plant species via measurements of chlorophyll concentrations, radial stem growth, bud biomass and stable carbon isotope composition of sugars in different plant organs. Young plants of Prunus ilicifolia, Umbellularia californica and Arctostaphylos manzanita were measured and subjected to manipulations at two levels: trunk light exclusion (100 and 50%) and complete defoliation. We found that long-term light exclusion resulted in a reduction in chlorophyll concentration and radial growth, demonstrating that trunk assimilates contributed to trunk carbon income. In addition, bud biomass was lower in covered plants compared to uncovered plants. Excluding 100% of the ambient light from trunks on defoliated plants led to an enrichment in 13C of trunk phloem sugars. We attributed this effect to a reduction in photosynthetic carbon isotope discrimination against 13C that in turn resulted in an enrichment in 13C of bud sugars. Taken together our results reveal that stem photosynthesis contributes to the total carbon income of all species including the buds in defoliated plants.