In Mediterranean environments, gully erosion is responsible for large soil losses. It has since long been recognized that slopes under vegetation are much more resistant to soil erosion processes compared to bare soils and improve slope stability. Planting or preserving vegetation in areas vulnerable to erosion is therefore considered to be a very effective soil erosion control measure. Re-vegetation strategies for erosion control rely in most cases on the effects of the above-ground biomass in reducing water erosion rates, whereas the role of the below-ground biomass is often neglected or underestimated. While the above-ground biomass can temporally disappear in semi-arid environments, roots may still be present underground and play an important role in protecting the topsoil from being eroded. In order to evaluate the potential of plant species growing in Mediterranean environments to prevent shallow mass movements on gully or terrace walls, the root reinforcement effect of 25 typical Mediterranean matorral species (i.e. shrubs, grasses herbs, small trees) was assessed, using the simple perpendicular model of Wu et al. (Can Geotech J 16:19-33, 1979). As little information is available on Mediterranean plant root characteristics, root distribution data were collected in SE-Spain and root tensile strength tests were conducted in the laboratory. The power root tensile strength-root diameter relationships depend on plant species. The results show that the shrubs Salsola genistoides Juss. Ex Poir. and Atriplex halimus L. have the strongest roots, followed by the grass Brachypodium retusum (Pers.) Beauv. The shrubs Nerium oleander L. and the grass Avenula bromoides (Gouan) H. Scholz have the weakest roots in tension. Root area ratio for the 0-0.1 m topsoil ranges from 0.08% for the grass Piptatherum miliaceum (L.) Coss to 0.8% for the tree Tamarix canariensis Willd. The rush Juncus acutus L. provides the maximum soil reinforcement to the topsoil by its roots (i.e. 304 kPa). Grasses also increase soil shear strength significantly (up to 244 kPa in the 0-0.1 m topsoil for Brachypodium retusum (Pers.) Beauv.). The shrubs Retama sphaerocarpa (L.) Boiss. and Anthyllis cytisoides L. are increasing soil shear strength to a large extent as well (up to 134 and 160 kPa respectively in the 0-0.10 m topsoil). Whereas grasses and the rush Juncus acutus L. increase soil shear strength in the topsoil (0-0.10 m) to a large extent, the shrubs Anthyllis cytisoides (L.), Retama sphaerocarpa (L.) Boiss., Salsola genistoides Juss. Ex Poir. and Atriplex halimus L. strongly reinforce the soil to a greater depth (0-0.5 m). As other studies reported that Wu's model overestimates root cohesion values, reported root cohesion values in this study are maximum values. Nevertheless, the calculated cohesion values are used to rank species according to their potential to reinforce the soil.