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Abstract Aim Climate-based models often explain most of the variation in species richness along broad-scale geographical gradients. We aim to: (1) test predictions of woody plant species richness on a regional spatial extent deduced from macro-scale models based on water–energy dynamics; (2) test if the length of the climate gradients will determine whether the relationship with woody species richness is monotonic or unimodal; and (3) evaluate the explanatory power of a previously proposed ‘water–energy’ model and regional models at two grain sizes. Location The Iberian Peninsula. Methods We estimated woody plant species richness on grid maps with c. 2500 and 22,500 km2 cell size, using geocoded data for the individual species. Generalized additive models were used to explore the relationships between richness and climatic, topographical and substrate variables. Ordinary least squares regression was used to compare regional and more general water–energy models in relation to grain size. Variation partitioning by partial regression was applied to find how much of the variation in richness was related to spatial variables, explanatory variables and the overlap between these two. Results Water–energy dynamics generate important underlying gradients that determine the woody species richness even over a short spatial extent. The relationships between richness and the energy variables were linear to curvilinear, whereas those with precipitation were nonlinear and non-monotonic. Only a small fraction of the spatially structured variation in woody species richness cannot be accounted for by the fitted variables related to climate, substrate and topography. The regional models accounted for higher variation in species richness than the water–energy models, although the water–energy model including topography performed well at the larger grain size. Elevation range was the most important predictor at all scales, probably because it corrects for ‘climatic error’ due to the unrealistic assumption that mean climate values are evenly distributed in the large grid cells. Minimum monthly potential evapotranspiration was the best climatic predictor at the larger grain size, but actual evapotranspiration was best at the smaller grain size. Energy variables were more important than precipitation individually. Precipitation was not a significant variable at the larger grain size when examined on its own, but was highly significant when an interaction term between itself and substrate was included in the model. Main conclusions The significance of range in elevation is probably because it corresponds to several aspects that may influence species diversity, such as climatic variability within grid cells, enhanced surface area, and location for refugia. The relative explanatory power of energy and water variables was high, and was influenced by the length of the climate gradient, substrate and grain size of the analysis. Energy appeared to have more influence than precipitation, but water availability is also determined by energy, substrate and topographic relief.