Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 788–796
Understanding variation of plant nutrients is largely limited to nitrogen and to a lesser extent phosphorus. Here we analyse patterns of variation in 11 elements (nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium/calcium/magnesium/sulphur/silicon/iron/sodium/manganese/aluminium) in leaves of 1900 plant species across China. The concentrations of these elements show significant latitudinal and longitudinal trends, driven by significant influences of climate, soil and plant functional type. Precipitation explains more variation than temperature for all elements except phosphorus and aluminium, and the 11 elements differentiate in relation to climate, soil and functional type. Variability (assessed as the coefficient of variation) and environmental sensitivity (slope of responses to environmental gradients) are lowest for elements that are required in the highest concentrations, most abundant and most often limiting in nature (the Stability of Limiting Elements Hypothesis). Our findings can help initiate a more holistic approach to ecological plant nutrition and lay the groundwork for the eventual development of multiple element biogeochemical models.