Relationships between the distribution and specific leaf area (SLA: leaf area per unit dry mass) of six heath (Ericaceae) species were investigated along an environmental gradient between peat bogs and conifer forest in British Columbia, Canada. I asked whether patterns in SLA could help to identify the processes shaping plant distributional patterns. Specifically, I assessed whether (i) species’ distributions across the environmental gradient are correlated with SLA (ii) relationships between plant distributional patterns and SLA are similar among bogs with different shrub species (iii) intraspecific patterns in SLA parallel interspecific relationships between distributions and SLA, and (iv) intraspecific patterns are environmentally determined. Results showed that distributional patterns were often correlated with SLA; species with lower SLA were more abundant towards the centre of bogs, while species with higher SLA were more abundant in forest. Intraspecific patterns in SLA paralleled distributional patterns across the gradient; individuals located towards the centre of bogs had lower SLA than those growing in forest. A transplantation experiment showed that plants typically altered their SLA according to local environmental conditions. However, one bog showed no relationship between species’ distributions and SLA. This bog lacked the two species with lowest SLA, which typically occurred at the centre of other bogs. In their absence, species with higher SLA that typically occurred in forest increased in abundance towards the centre of the bog, where they obtained lower values of SLA. Therefore, while distributional patterns were often closely associated with SLA, plasticity in SLA was associated with increased breadth of species’ distributions across the gradient. Overall results indicate SLA may serve as a useful proxy for a range of life history traits to help elucidate the processes structuring plant communities.