Moving from the observation that drainage network configurations minimizing total energy dissipation are stationary solutions of the general equation describing landscape evolution, we review theoretical and observational evidence on river patterns and their scale-invariant structure. Exact results complemented by numerical annealing of the basic equation in the presence of additive noise suggest that configurations at (or very close to) the global minimum of energy dissipation differ from dynamically accessible states, which have rather different scaling properties and conform much better to natural forms. Thus we argue that, at least in the fluvial landscape, Nature works through imperfect searches for dynamically accessible optimal configurations. We also show that optimal networks are spanning loopless configurations only under precise physical requirements. This is stated in a form applicable to generic networks, suggesting that other branching structures occurring in Nature (e.g. scale-free and looping) may possibly arise through optimality to selective pressures. Indeed, we show that this is the case. © 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.