Major restrictions to the hydraulic conductance of xylem (K(XYL)) in vascular plants have traditionally been attributed to anatomical constraints. More recently, changes in the cationic concentration of xylem sap have been suggested to be responsible for short-term changes in K(XYL) based on data for 35 dicot species, and very few gymnosperms and ferns, indicating that xylem water transport may no longer be considered as an entirely passive process. Recent studies have revealed that this so-called ionic effect: (i) varies from little or no increase to >30%, (ii) is species specific, (iii) changes on a seasonal basis, (iv) depends on the cationic concentration, (v) is enhanced in embolized stems, and (vi) is positively correlated with vessel grouping. Furthermore, the ionic effect has been suggested to play functional roles in planta with respect to: (i) phloem-mediated control of xylem hydraulic properties, (ii) compensation of cavitation-induced loss of hydraulic conductance, with the result of optimizing light and water utilization, and (iii) differential regulation of water delivery to branches exposed to different levels of light. Pits are likely to play a key role in the ionic effect, which has largely been explained as a consequence of the poly-electrolytic nature and hydrogel properties of the pectic matrix of interconduit pit membranes, despite little evidence that pit membrane pectins remain present after cell hydrolysis. More research is needed to address the ionic effect in more species, physico-chemical properties of pit membranes, and how the ionic effect may increase xylem hydraulic conductance 'on demand'.