Under phosphorus deficiency reductions in plant leaf area have been attributed to both direct effects of P on the individual leaf expansion rate and to a reduced availability of assimilates for leaf growth. In this work we use experimental and simulation techniques to identify and quantify these processes in wheat plants growing under P-deficient conditions. In a glasshouse experiment we studied the effects of soil P addition (0–138 kg P2O5 ha−1) on tillering, leaf emergence, leaf expansion, plant growth, and leaf photosynthesis of wheat plants (cv. INTA Oasis) that were not water stressed. Plants were grown in pots containing a P-deficient (3 mg P g−1 soil) sandy soil. Sowing and pots were arranged to simulate a crop stand of 173 plants m−2. Experimental results were integrated in a simulation model to study the relative importance of each process in determining the plant leaf area during vegetative stages of wheat. Phosphorus deficiency significantly reduced plant leaf area and dry weight production. Under P-deficient conditions the phyllochron (PHY) was increased up to a 32%, compared to that of high-P plants. In low-P plants the rate of individual leaf area expansion during the quasi-linear phase of leaf expansion (LER) was significantly reduced. The effect of P deficiency on LER was the main determinant of the final size of the individual leaves. In recently expanded leaves phosphorus deficiency reduced the photosynthesis rate per unit leaf area at high radiation (AMAX), up to 57%. Relative values of AMAX showed an hyperbolic relationship with leaf P% saturating at 0.27%. Relative values of the tillering rate showed an hyperbolic relationship with the shoot P% saturating at values above 0.38%. The value of LER was not related to the concentration of P in leaves or shoots. A morphogenetic model of leaf area development and growth was developed to quantify the effect of assimilate supply at canopy level on total leaf area expansion, and to study the sensitivity of different model variables to changes in model parameters. Simulation results indicated that under mild P stress conditions up to 80% of the observed reduction in plant leaf area was due to the effects of P deficiency on leaf emergence and tillering. Under extreme P-deficient conditions the simulation model failed to explain the experimental results indicating that other factors not taken into account by the model, i.e. direct effects of P on leaf expansion, must have been active. Possible mechanisms of action of the direct effects of P on individual leaf expansion are discussed in this work.