Nonstructural carbon (NSC) provides the carbon and energy for plant growth and survival. In woody plants, fundamental questions about NSC remain unresolved: Is NSC storage an active or passive process? Do older NSC reserves remain accessible to the plant? How is NSC depletion related to mortality risk? Herein we review conceptual and mathematical models of NSC dynamics, recent observations and experiments at the organismal scale, and advances in plant physiology that have provided a better understanding of the dynamics of woody plant NSC. Plants preferentially use new carbon but can access decade-old carbon when the plant is stressed or physically damaged. In addition to serving as a carbon and energy source, NSC plays important roles in phloem transport, osmoregulation, and cold tolerance, but how plants regulate these competing roles and NSC depletion remains elusive. Moving forward requires greater synthesis of models and data and integration across scales from -omics to ecology.