The effects of ethylene evolved from ethephon on leaf and whole plant photosynthesis in Xanthium strumarium L. were examined. Ethylene-induced epinasty reduced light interception by the leaves of ethephon treated plants by up to 60%. Gas exchange values of individual, attached leaves under identical assay conditions were not inhibited even after 36 hours of ethylene exposure, although treated leaves required a longer induction period to achieve steady state photosynthesis. The speed of translocation of recently fixed (11)C-assimilate movement was not seriously impaired following ethephon treatment; however, a greater proportion of the assimilate was partitioned downward toward the roots. Within 24 hours of ethephon treatment, the whole plant net carbon exchange rate expressed on a per plant basis or a leaf area basis had dropped by 35%. The apparent inhibition of net carbon exchange rate was reversed by physically repositioning the leaves with respect to the light source. Ethylene exposure also inhibited expansion of young leaves which was partially reversed when the leaves were repositioned. The data indicated that ethylene indirectly affected net C gain and plant growth through modification of light interception and altered sink demand without directly inhibiting leaf photosynthesis.