This paper is a response to commentary on the review by Gurnell (Plants as river system engineers. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms39: 4–25, 2014). It covers three themes. First, it explains how the review focused on physical ecosystem engineering by plants, particularly in the northern humid temperate zone. Second, it explains how the review was structured to address that theme and why annual species were not highlighted. Within the humid temperate zone, mature plants of annual species are not present during the seasons of the year when fluvial processes are most active: they survive as seeds or young seedlings, and so their ability to act as river ecosystem engineers is limited. Third, some comments are made regarding the annual species, Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), including the traits that enable it to be successful in riparian environments, its competitive ability, its potential role in influencing fluvial sediment dynamics, and the need for controlled experiments to characterize and quantify the latter over one or more complete years. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.