1. Leaf area index (LAI), a measure of canopy density, is a key variable for modelling and understanding primary productivity, and also water use and energy exchange in forest ecosystems. However, LAI varies considerably with phenology and disturbance patterns, so alternative approaches to quantifying stand-level processes should be considered. The carbon isotope composition of soil organic matter (δ 13C SOM) provides a time-integrated, productivity-weighted measure of physiological and stand-level processes, reflecting biomass deposition from seasonal to decadal time scales. 2. Our primary aim was to explore how well LAI correlates with δ 13C SOM across biomes. 3. Using a global data set spanning large environmental gradients in tropical, temperate and boreal forest and woodland, we assess the strength of the correlation between LAI and δ 13C SOM; we also assess climatic variables derived from the WorldClim database. 4. We found that LAI was strongly correlated with δ 13C SOM, but was also correlated with Mean Temperature of the Wettest Quarter, Mean Precipitation of Warmest Quarter and Annual Solar Radiation across and within biomes. 5. Synthesis. Our results demonstrate that δ 13C SOM values can provide spatially explicit estimates of leaf area index (LAI) and could therefore serve as a surrogate for productivity and water use. While δ 13C SOM has traditionally been used to reconstruct the relative abundance of C 3 versus C 4 species, the results of this study demonstrate that within stable C 3- or C 4-dominated biomes, δ 13C SOM can provide additional insights. The fact that LAI is strongly correlated to δ 13C SOM may allow for a more nuanced interpretation of ecosystem properties of palaeoecosystems based on palaeosol 13C values.