Experiments in three dry seasons (1993/94, 1994/95, 1995/96) on a loamy medium sand at ADAS Gleadthorpe, Nottinghamshire, England tested responses of green area, radiation interception, water uptake and above-ground dry matter growth of six wheat cultivars to irrigation. Cultivars differing in date of introduction (Haven 1987, Maris Huntsman 1969, Mercia 1983, Rialto 1991, Riband 1985 and Soissons 1989) were chosen for contrast in flowering time and maximum green area. Maximum soil moisture deficit (SMD) exceeded 140 mm in all years, with large deficits (> 75 mm) from early June in 1994 and more prolonged large deficits in 1995 and 1996. Restricted water availability first affected canopy expansion at a SMD of 74 mm (50% available water capacity; AW), and canopy senescence at 95 mm (64% AW). Decreases in biomass at harvest were larger with prolonged droughts in 1995 and 1996 (424–562 g/m2) than in 1994 (222 g/m2). Compared in the two driest years, 1995 and 1996, the decrease in biomass was greater in Haven (599 g/m2) than in Maris Huntsman (420 g/m2) (P < 0·05). The better drought resistance of Maris Huntsman appeared to arise through its greater water use efficiency (WUE); 6·2 cf. 5·5–5·7 g/m2/mm. The susceptibility of Haven to drought was possibly due to restricted water uptake, depression of radiation use efficiency (RUE) and accelerated senescence. The cultivars differed in flowering by up to 9 days but date of flowering correlated poorly with biomass response to irrigation. Early flowering was, however, correlated with favourable distribution of seasonal water use with respect to the grain filling period. The maximum green area index (GAI) of cultivars varied from 4·4 to 5·3 (P < 0·01), but differences were countered by shifts in the extinction coefficient (K), such that season-long radiation interception varied little. Green area index maxima did not therefore relate to the pattern of growth or water use, and they were correlated poorly with the biomass responses. Cultivars did not differ in their maximum depth of water extraction; they all extracted water to 1·65 m depth in each year. It is concluded that early flowering and high WUE might offer scope for improving drought resistance in the UK's temperate climate, but that small maximum GAI seems less useful.