Abstract A ‘floodplain large-wood cycle’ is hypothesized as a mechanism for generating landforms and influencing river dynamics in ways that structure and maintain riparian and aquatic ecosystems of forested alluvial river valleys of the Pacific coastal temperate rainforest of North America. In the cycle, pieces of wood large enough to resist fluvial transport and remain in river channels initiate and stabilize wood jams, which in turn create alluvial patches and protect them from erosion. These stable patches provide sites for trees to mature over hundreds of years in river valleys where the average cycle of floodplain turnover is much briefer, thus providing a future source of large wood and reinforcing the cycle. Different tree species can function in the floodplain large-wood cycle in different ecological regions, in different river valleys within regions, and within individual river valleys in which forest composition changes through time. The cycle promotes a physically complex, biodiverse, and self-reinforcing state. Conversely, loss of large trees from the system drives landforms and ecosystems toward an alternate stable state of diminished biogeomorphic complexity. Reestablishing large trees is thus necessary to restore such rivers. Although interactions and mechanisms may differ between biomes and in larger or smaller rivers, available evidence suggests that large riparian trees may have similarly fundamental roles in the physical and biotic structuring of river valleys elsewhere in the temperate zone.