Aims The correlation between vein density and water use efficiency (WUE) affects the balance between water supply and demand of plant leaves, which is significant for comprehending the ecological adaptation strategies of plants. The objective of this study was to study how Salix matsudana modulated vein density and WUE along a soil moisture gradient in Zhangye Wetland, China. Methods The study was conducted in floodplain wetland near Heihe River in Zhangye City, Gansu Province, China. Three sample plots, at a spatial interval of 70 m, were set up along a soil moisture gradient ordinally from the area near the water body to the wetland edge, plot I (69.23%), spot II (48.38%) and spot III (35.27%). Community traits were investigated by using diagonal method, and all individuals of S. matsudana were used for measurements of height and canopy. At each plot, 5 individuals of S. matsudana at 4 vertices and diagonal intersection were selected for measurements of vein density, WUE, net photosynthetic rate (Pn), transpiration rate (Tr), photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), saturated vapor pressure differences (VPD), specific leaf area, stomatal conductance (Gs) and intercellular CO2 concentration (Ci). We used mathematical methods of correlation analysis and standardized major axis to investigate relationships between vein density and WUE. Important findings With decreasing soil moisture, the height, canopy, specific leaf area, Gs and Ci of S. matsudana decreased gradually, while the vein density, WUE, Pn, Tr, PAR and VPD increased gradually. The correlation between vein density and WUE was positive in all the three plots, but the relationship varied along the soil moisture plots gradient. There was a highly significant positive correlation (p < 0.01) between the vein density and WUE at plot I and III, whereas the correlation only reached a significant level (p < 0.05) at plot II; The correlation coefficient between vein density and WUE is significantly smaller than 1 at plot I (p < 0.05), while the correlation coefficient is significant greater than 1 at plot II and III (p < 0.05). We can conclude that varied relationships between vein density and WUE of S. matsudana along a soil moisture gradient could reflect plant acclimation.