In vascular plants, xylem is one of the two types of transport tissue, phloem being the other. The word "xylem" is derived from classical Greek ξυλον (xylon), "wood", and indeed the best known xylem tissue is wood, though it is found throughout the plant. Its basic function is to transport water.
The xylem is responsible for the transport of water and soluble mineral nutrients from the roots throughout the plant. It is also used to replace water lost during transpiration and photosynthesis. Xylem sap consists mainly of water and inorganic ions, although it can contain a number of organic chemicals as well. This transport is not powered by energy spent by the tracheary elements themselves, which are dead at maturity and no longer have living contents. Two phenomena cause xylem sap to flow:
Xylem can be found:
Note that, in transitional stages of plants with secondary growth, the first two categories are not mutually exclusive, although usually a vascular bundle will contain primary xylem only.
The most distinctive cells found in xylem are the tracheary elements: tracheids and vessel elements. However, the xylem is a complex tissue of plants, which means that it includes more than one type of cell. In fact, xylem contains other kinds of cells, such as parenchyma, in addition to those that serve to transport water.
Secondary xylem is the xylem that is formed during secondary growth from vascular cambium. Although secondary xylem is also found in members of the "gymnosperm" groups Gnetophyta and Ginkgophyta and to a lesser extent in members of the Cycadophyta, the two main groups in which secondary xylem can be found are:
Xylem appeared early in the history of terrestrial plant life. Fossil plants with anatomically preserved xylem are known from the Silurian (more than 400 million years ago), and trace fossils resembling individual xylem cells may be found in earlier Ordovician rocks. The earliest true and recognizable xylem consists of tracheids with a helical-annular reinforcing layer added to the cell wall. This is the only type of xylem found in the earliest vascular plants, and this type of cell continues to be found in the protoxylem (first-formed xylem) of all living groups of plants. Several groups of plants later developed pitted tracheid cells, apparently through convergent evolution. In living plants, pitted tracheids do not appear in development until the maturation of the metaxylem (following the protoxylem).
In most plants, pitted tracheids function as the primary transport cells. The other type of tracheary element, besides the tracheid, is the vessel element. Vessel elements are joined by perforations into vessels. In vessels, water travels by bulk flow, like in a pipe, rather than by diffusion through cell membranes. The presence of vessels in xylem has been considered to be one of the key innovations that led to the success of the angiosperms. However, the occurrence of vessel elements is not restricted to angiosperms, and they are absent in some archaic or "basal" lineages of the angiosperms: (e.g., Amborellaceae, Tetracentraceae, Trochodendraceae, and Winteraceae), and their secondary xylem is described by Arthur Cronquist as "primitively vesselless". Cronquist considered the vessels of Gnetum to be convergent with those of angiosperms. Whether the absence of vessels in basal angiosperms is a primitive condition is contested, the alternative hypothesis being that vessel elements originated in a precursor to the angiosperms and were subsequently lost.