Subsurface stormflow is an important component of the rainfall–runoff response, especially in steep terrain. Its contribution to total runoff is, however, poorly represented in the current generation of land surface models. The lack of physical basis of these common parameterizations precludes a priori estimation of the stormflow (i.e. without calibration), which is a major drawback for prediction in ungauged basins, or for use in global land surface models. This paper is aimed at deriving regionalized parameterizations of the storage–discharge relationship relating to subsurface stormflow from a top–down empirical data analysis of streamflow recession curves extracted from 50 eastern United States catchments. Detailed regression analyses were performed between parameters of the empirical storage–discharge relationships and the controlling climate, soil and topographic characteristics. The regression analyses performed on empirical recession curves at catchment scale indicated that the coefficient of the power-law form storage–discharge relationship is closely related to the catchment hydrologic characteristics, which is consistent with the hydraulic theory derived mainly at the hillslope scale. As for the exponent, besides the role of field scale soil hydraulic properties as suggested by hydraulic theory, it is found to be more strongly affected by climate (aridity) at the catchment scale. At a fundamental level these results point to the need for more detailed exploration of the co-dependence of soil, vegetation and topography with climate.