•Variation in plant functional traits is the product of evolutionary and environmental drivers operating at different scales. Little is known about whether, or how, this variation is coordinated between aboveground and belowground organs across and within spatial scales. •We address these questions using a hierarchically designed dataset of pairwise leaf and root traits related to carbon and nutrient economy of 64 species belonging to 14 plant communities in northern Chinese semi-arid and arid regions. •While both root and leaf traits showed most of their variance among (individuals and) species within communities, leaf trait variance tended to be relatively higher at coarser spatial scales than root trait variance. While leaf nitrogen (N) per area to root N per length ratio increased and specific leaf area to specific root length and leaf [N] to root [N] ratios decreased from semi-arid to arid environments owing to climatic/edaphic shifts, the matching pairs showed a strong pattern of positive correlation that was upheld across spatial scales and geographic areas. •Thus, trade-offs in plant resource investment across organs within individual vascular plants are constrained within a rather narrow range of variation. A new challenge will be to test whether and how such trait coordination is also seen within and across other biomes of the world. © The Authors (2010). Journal compilation © New Phytologist Trust (2010).