The hypothesis that drought intensity constrains the recovery of photosynthesis from drought was tested in the C-3 woody legume Prosopis velutina, and the mechanisms underlying this constraint examined. Hydraulic status and gas exchange were measured the day before a 39 mm precipitation pulse, and up to 7 d afterwards. The experiment was conducted under rainout shelters, established on contrasting soil textures and with different vegetation cover at the Santa Rita Experimental Range in southeastern Arizona, USA. Rates of photosynthesis and stomatal conductance after re-watering, as well as the number of days necessary for photosynthesis to recover after re-watering, were negatively correlated with predawn water potential, a measure of drought intensity (R-2 = 0.83, 0.64 and 0.92, respectively). Photosynthetic recovery was incomplete when the vascular capacity for water transport had been severely impaired (percentage loss of hydraulic conductance > 80%) during the drought, which largely increased stomatal limitations. However, changes in biochemical capacity or in mesophyll conductance did not explain the observed pattern of photosynthesis recovery. Although the control that hydraulic limitations impose on photosynthesis recovery had been previously inferred, the first empirical test of this concept is reported here. New Phytologist (2009) 181: 672-682 doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2008.02687.x.