Abstract Lianas and other climbing plants are known for their extraordinarily wide vessels. Wide vessels are thought to contribute to the extreme hydraulic efficiency of lianas and to play a part in their ability to dominate many tropical habitats, and even their globally increasing abundance with anthropic disturbance. However, recent hydraulic optimality models suggest that the average vessel diameter of plants generally is the result of tip-to-base vessel widening reflecting the effects of selection buffering conductive path length-imposed hydraulic resistance. These models state that mean vessel diameter should be predicted by stem length, by implication even in lianas. We explore vessel–stem relations with 1409 samples from 424 species in 159 families of both self- and non-self-supporting plants. We show that, far from being exceptional in their vessel diameter, lianas have average natural (not hydraulically weighted) vessel diameters that are indistinguishable for a given stem length from those in self-supporting plants. Lianas do, however, have wider variance in vessel diameter. They have a small number of vessels that are wider than those in self-supporting plants of similar stem lengths, and also narrower vessels. This slightly greater variance is sufficient to make hydraulically weighted vessel diameters in lianas higher than those of self-supporting counterparts of similar stem lengths. Moreover, lianas have significantly more vessels per unit of wood transection than self-supporting plants do. This subtle combination of slightly higher vessel diameter variance and higher vessel density for a given stem length is likely what makes lianas hydraulically distinctive, rather than their having vessels that are truly exceptionally wide.