Unravelling the factors determining the allocation of carbon to various plant organs is one of the great challenges of modern plant biology. Studying allocation under close to natural conditions requires non-invasive methods, which are now becoming available for measuring plants on a par with those developed for humans. By combining magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), we investigated three contrasting root/shoot systems growing in sand or soil, with respect to their structures, transport routes and the translocation dynamics of recently fixed photoassimilates labelled with the short-lived radioactive carbon isotope 11C. Storage organs of sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) and radish plants (Raphanus sativus) were assessed using MRI, providing images of the internal structures of the organs with high spatial resolution, and while species-specific transport sectoralities, properties of assimilate allocation and unloading characteristics were measured using PET. Growth and carbon allocation within complex root systems were monitored in maize plants (Zea mays), and the results may be used to identify factors affecting root growth in natural substrates or in competition with roots of other plants. MRI–PET co-registration opens the door for non-invasive analysis of plant structures and transport processes that may change in response to genomic, developmental or environmental challenges. It is our aim to make the methods applicable for quantitative analyses of plant traits in phenotyping as well as in understanding the dynamics of key processes that are essential to plant performance.