1. Wildfires strongly influence the biotic composition and carbon cycle of many ecosystems. Plant species provide the fuel for wildfires, but vary widely in their flammability. This study aimed to determine what plant characteristics control leaf litter flammability and to clarify how they are related to other functional traits.
2. Litter flammability varied across 14 tree species occurring in a mosaic of five floristic associations.
3. Differences in heat-release rate between species were driven by leaf size, from small-leaved conifers, casuarinas and acacias to large-leaved eucalypts and Brachychiton.
4. Large leaves created an open litter-bed structure that burned more rapidly because it was better ventilated. The results on heat-release rate were partitioned according to fundamental principles for the transport of oxygen through a packed fuel bed, showing that heat-release rate scaled linearly with estimated gas-flow rates, as expected in ventilation-controlled fires.
5. Species that were able to resprout after fire had litter that burned more intensely and was more likely to sustain a spreading fire than litter from obligate seeders, and were correspondingly larger-leaved.
6. Many fire-prone wooded ecosystems in the region consist of large-leaved resprouting tree species co-occurring with small-leaved obligate seeders.