Early plant establishment through seed germination and seedling emergence is a crucial process that determines seedling number, emergence time distribution and the early growth of seedlings, all of which are affected by soil climate and soil structure. In the current context of climate change, in which increasing the diversity of cultivated species is considered desirable, and new tillage practices are considerably modifying top-soil surface characteristics, we need to improve our ability to model the effects of the environment on plant establishment. Using a trait-based and model-based framework, we aimed to identify general relationships between seed and seedling traits (e.g. seed mass and lipid content, seedling diameter, base temperature) and germination and emergence model parameters (e.g. time to mid-germination, shoot elongation rate) measured for 18 genotypes belonging to 14 species. Relationships were also investigated among model parameters or traits. Germination rates were faster for species with a high base temperature and for species with seed reserves located principally in the embryo (rather than the endosperm or perisperm). During heterotrophic growth, maximal shoot length and elongation rate increased with seed dry mass. The sensitivity of seedlings to soil obstacles was negatively related to shoot diameter. Thus apart from the known effects of seed mass on seedling establishment, we found that seed reserve location, seedling shoot diameter and shape affected germination rate and emergence success. Such generic rules linking plant traits to germination and emergence parameters enhance our understanding of the determinants of environmental effects on plant establishment success.