Root system size (RSS) is a complex trait that is greatly influenced by environmental cues. Hence, both intrinsic developmental pathways and environmental-response pathways contribute to RSS. To assess the natural variation in both types of pathways, we examined the root systems of the closely related Arabidopsis ecotypes Landsberg erecta (Ler) and Columbia (Col) grown under mild osmotic stress conditions. We found that Ler initiates more lateral root primordia, produces lateral roots from a higher percentage of these primordia, and has an overall larger root system than Col under these conditions. Furthermore, although each of these parameters is reduced by osmotic stress in both ecotypes, Ler shows a decreased sensitivity to osmotica. To understand the genetic basis for these differences, QTL for RSS under mild osmotic stress were mapped in a Ler x Col recombinant inbred population. Two robust quantitative trait loci (QTL) were identified and confirmed in near-isogenic lines (NILs). The NILs also allowed us to define distinct physiological roles for the gene(s) at each locus. This study provides insight into the genetic and physiological complexity that determines RSS and begins to dissect the molecular basis for naturally occurring differences in morphology and developmental plasticity in the root system.