Aims Plants can enhance their photosynthetic efficiency and competitiveness by adjusting canopy structure and radiation interception. The objective of this paper was to quantify the relationship between canopy structure (crown depth and crown area) and light interception (LI) in a Salix matsudana stand under three different stand densities in a flood plain of Zhangye.Methods Our study site is located at the Heihe flood plain of Xichengyi in Ganzhou district, Zhangye City, Gansu Province in the middle Heihe River, where S. matsudana is the dominant species. Based on stand density (10 m × 10 m), the S. matsudana community is divided into three types: low density (I, 25-36 Ind.·plot-1), medium density (II, 37-48 Ind.·plot-1), and high density (III, 49-60 Ind.·plot-1). Community characteristics, soil physical and chemical properties of each type were measured. At each plot, we measured photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), LI, net photosynthetic rate (Pn), transpiration rate (Tr), crown depth, crown area, leaf area index (LAI), twig numbers, twig length, and bifurcation angle. The standardized major axis (SMA) estimation method was used to determine the relationships between LI and canopy structure.Important findings With increasing in stand density, we found that soil moisture increased, and soil electric conductivity decreased, while twig length and crown depth increased, and PAR, twig numbers, bifurcation angle and crown area decreased. LAI and LI, Pn and Tr reached their maximum at the stand of medium density. There was a significant, positive correlation and negative correlation (p < 0.01), respectively, between the LI, crown depth and crown area at low density (I), whereas low significant (p < 0.05) at high density (III), and high significantly positive correlation (p < 0.01) at the medium density (II). S. matsudana has more horizontal branches that reduce LI. Canopy thickness and increased crown area at low density. More vertical distribution of branches at high density, and a more balanced spacial distribution were found at medium density.