Optical remote sensing is potentially highly informative to track Earth’s plant functional diversity. Yet, causal explanations of how and why plant functioning is expressed in canopy reflectance remain limited. Variation in canopy reflectance can be described by radiative transfer models (here PROSAIL) that incorporate plant traits affecting light transmission in canopies. To establish causal links between canopy reflectance and plant functioning, we investigate how two plant functional schemes, i.e. the Leaf Economic Spectrum (LES) and CSR plant strategies, are related to traits with relevance to reflectance. These traits indeed related to both functional schemes, whereas only traits describing leaf properties correlated with the LES. In contrast, traits related to canopy structure showed no correlation to the LES, but to CSR strategies, as the latter integrates both plant economics and size traits, rather than solely leaf economics. Multiple optically relevant traits featured comparable or higher correspondence to the CSR space than those traits originally used to allocate CSR scores. This evidences that plant functions and strategies are directly expressed in reflectance and entails that canopy reflectance follows function’. This opens up new possibilities to understand differences in plant functioning and to harness optical remote sensing data for monitoring EarthṀs functional diversity.