Basic Botany: Xylem and Phloem


I first learned about xylem and phloem back in school … a half-century ago! So, I’m due for a bit of revision … and maybe you are as well. 

Xylem and phloem are conduits, part of the vascular system of higher plants: they’re designed to move water, minerals and sugars (food) from one part of the plant to another. 

“Lower plants,” like mosses and liverworts, simply count on capillary action as their source of water movement, like when you dip the tip of a cloth in water and then moisture moves further up the cloth, but then they’re only a few centimeters high at most. That won’t work for taller plants. Imagine getting water to flow up to the top of a giant redwood simply by capillary action! Instead, specialized cells line up together and transfer the products up and down, as needed. 

Of course, try sending one product up a tube while another comes down the same tube at the same time in the opposite direction with any speed. That wouldn’t work! So higher plants developed two types of cells: xylem and phloem.

Xylem cells do the hard work, “pulling” water and minerals up, from one cell to the next, from the roots all the way up the stem to the very top of the plant. Rich in lignin, they also form the wood of trees and shrubs. The rings you see in a tree stump are made of xylem.

Phloem cells don’t work quite the same way. Sugars, resulting from photosynthesis and thus mostly produced by the leaves, are needed by all parts of the plant, from the flowers at the top to the roots at the bottom, so they have to flow both up and down and do so by diffusion … and also by gravity (most of the sugars eventually reach the roots). Phloem cells take the sugar-rich sap to where it is needed through their perforated cell walls.

These cells are found in all parts of the plant.

I recall in school understanding the concept, but not being able to remember which was which, which was always stressful when a biology exam was coming up. I wish someone had taught me the following mnemonic: water zips up the xylem and flows down the phloem. So simple!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

2 comments on “Basic Botany: Xylem and Phloem

  1. Martine Jaworski

    Yes, mnemonics are great devices. For my arboriculture course, I remembered XYlem as going up to the skY, from the roots upward. I used the same mnemonic you did for the Phloem, flowing downwards (simplistically put).

  2. Ha! So I am not the only one who confuses them. I remember that wood is ‘secondary xylem’, which reminds me sort of where active xylem is located. Also I remember that two way traffic is on the outside of that.
    Then we have palms.

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