P>1. Plant traits are fundamental for understanding and predicting vegetation responses to global changes, and they provide a promising basis towards a more quantitative and predictive approach to ecology. As a consequence, information on plant traits is rapidly accumulating, and there is a growing need for efficient database tools that enable the assembly and synthesis of trait data. 2. Plant traits are highly heterogeneous, exhibit a low degree of standardization and are linked and interdependent at various levels of biological organization: tissue, organ, plant and population. Therefore, they often require ancillary data for interpretation, including descriptors of the biotic and abiotic environment, methods and taxonomic relationships. 3. We introduce a generic database structure that is tailored to accommodate plant trait complexity and is consistent with current theoretical approaches to characterize the structure of observational data. The over-arching utility of the proposed database structure is illustrated based on two independent plant trait database projects. 4. The generic database structure proposed here is meant to serve as a flexible blueprint for future plant trait databases, improving data discovery, and ensuring compatibility among them.