The plant growth regulator auxin controls cell identity, cell division and cell expansion. Auxin efflux facilitators (PINs) are associated with auxin maxima in distal regions of both shoots and roots. Here we model diffusion and PIN-facilitated auxin transport in and across cells within a structured root layout. In our model, the stable accumulation of auxin in a distal maximum emerges from the auxin flux pattern. We have experimentally tested model predictions of robustness and self-organization. Our model explains pattern formation and morphogenesis at timescales from seconds to weeks, and can be understood by conceptualizing the root as an 'auxin capacitor'. A robust auxin gradient associated with the maximum, in combination with separable roles of auxin in cell division and cell expansion, is able to explain the formation, maintenance and growth of sharply bounded meristematic and elongation zones. Directional permeability and diffusion can fully account for stable auxin maxima and gradients that can instruct morphogenesis.