How species richness relates to environmental gradients at large extents is commonly investigated aggregating local site data to coarser grains. However, such relationships often change with the grain of analysis, potentially hiding the local signal. Here we show that a novel network technique, the "method of reflections", could unveil the relationships between species richness and climate without such drawbacks. We introduced a new index related to potential species richness, which revealed large scale patterns by including at the local community level information about species distribution throughout the dataset (i.e., the network). The method effectively removed noise, identifying how far site richness was from potential. When applying it to study woody species richness patterns in Spain, we observed that annual precipitation and mean annual temperature explained large parts of the variance of the newly defined species richness, highlighting that, at the local scale, communities in drier and warmer areas were potentially the species richest. Our method went far beyond what geographical upscaling of the data could unfold, and the insights obtained strongly suggested that it is a powerful instrument to detect key factors underlying species richness patterns, and that it could have numerous applications in ecology and other fields.