The major regulatory shoot signal is auxin, whose synthesis in young leaves has been a mystery. To test the leaf-venation hypothesis [R. Aloni (2001) J Plant Growth Regul 20: 22–34], the patterns of free-auxin production, movement and accumulation in developing leaf primordia of DR5::GUS-transformed Arabidopsis thaliana (L.) Heynh. were visualized. DR5::GUS expression was regarded to reflect sites of free auxin, while immunolocalization with specific monoclonal antibodies indicated total auxin distribution. The mRNA expression of key enzymes involved in the synthesis, conjugate hydrolysis, accumulation and basipetal transport of auxin, namely indole-3-glycerol-phosphate-synthase, nitrilase, IAA-amino acid hydrolase, chalcone synthase and PIN1 as an essential component of the basipetal IAA carrier, was investigated by reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction. Near the shoot apex, stipules were the earliest sites of high free-auxin production. During early stages of primordium development, leaf apical dominance was evident from strong β-glucuronidase activity in the elongating tip, possibly suppressing the production of free auxin in the leaf tissues below it. Hydathodes, which develop in the tip and later in the lobes, were apparently primary sites of high free-auxin production, the latter supported by auxin-conjugate hydrolysis, auxin retention by the chalcone synthase-dependent action of flavonoids and also by the PIN1-component of the carrier-mediated basipetal transport. Trichomes and mesophyll cells were secondary sites of free-auxin production. During primordium development there are gradual shifts in sites and concentrations of free-auxin production occurring first in the tip of a leaf primordium, then progressing basipetally along the margins, and finally appearing also in the central regions of the lamina. This developmental pattern of free-auxin production is suggested to control the basipetal maturation sequence of leaf development and vascular differentiation in Arabidopsis leaves. Electronic Supplementary Material is available if you access this article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00425-002-0937-8. On that page (frame on the left side), a link takes you directly to the supplementary material.