We quantified the biomass allocation patterns to leaves, stems and roots in vegetative plants, and how this is influenced by the growth environment, plant size, evolutionary history and competition. Dose-response curves of allocation were constructed by means of a meta-analysis from a wide array of experimental data. They show that the fraction of whole-plant mass represented by leaves (LMF) increases most strongly with nutrients and decreases most strongly with light. Correction for size-induced allocation patterns diminishes the LMF-response to light, but makes the effect of temperature on LMF more apparent. There is a clear phylogenetic effect on allocation, as eudicots invest relatively more than monocots in leaves, as do gymnosperms compared with woody angiosperms. Plants grown at high densities show a clear increase in the stem fraction. However, in most comparisons across species groups or environmental factors, the variation in LMF is smaller than the variation in one of the other components of the growth analysis equation: the leaf area : leaf mass ratio (SLA). In competitive situations, the stem mass fraction increases to a smaller extent than the specific stem length (stem length : stem mass). Thus, we conclude that plants generally are less able to adjust allocation than to alter organ morphology. © 2011 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2011 New Phytologist Trust.