Abstract Aim To determine the degree to which rivers within the south-eastern US Coastal Plain show a predictable spatial distribution of floodplain tree species along each point bar of river bends in relation to elevation and/or soil texture, as seen on the Bogue Chitto River, Louisiana, USA. Also, to understand spatial patterns of tree species on land created during river-bend migration, and to interpret which physical characteristics of rivers predict this pattern of vegetation. Location The south-eastern US Coastal Plain. Methods Ten randomly selected rivers within a portion of the region were studied. At each of 10 river bends per river, a census of trees and shrubs was taken and elevation and soil texture were measured at upstream, mid- and downstream locations along the forest–point bar margin. To identify physical characteristics of rivers that are predictive of patterns of tree species along point bars, aerial photographs, hydrographs and field data were analysed. Results Tree species composition varied predictably among the three point bar locations, corresponding to an elevation gradient on each bar, on seven of 10 rivers. Species occupying a given point bar location on one river usually occupied the same location on other rivers, in accordance with species-elevation associations identified in past studies of floodplain forests. Multivariate analysis of river characteristics suggested that rivers failing to show the expected pattern were those with relatively low stream energy and geomorphic dynamics and/or those with hydrological regimes altered by upstream dams. Main conclusions A distinct pattern of streamside forest community structure is related to fluvial geomorphic processes characterizing many rivers within the south-eastern US Coastal Plain. Characteristics of rivers required to promote the predicted pattern of tree species include a single, meandering channel with point bars; an intermediate level of stream energy; a natural hydrological regime; and location in a biome where a large number of tree species are capable of colonizing point bars.