• Nitric oxide (NO) is an important signaling molecule involved in the physiological processes of plants. The role of NO release in the tolerance strategies of roots of wheat (Triticum aestivum) under aluminum (Al) stress was investigated using two genotypes with different Al resistances. • An early NO burst at 3 h was observed in the root tips of the Al-tolerant genotype Jian-864, whereas the Al-sensitive genotype Yang-5 showed no NO accumulation at 3 h but an extremely high NO concentration after 12 h. Stimulating NO production at 3 h in the root tips of Yang-5 with the NO donor relieved Al-induced root inhibition and callose production, as well as oxidative damage and ROS accumulation, while elimination of the early NO burst by NO scavenger aggravated root inhibition in Jian-864. • Synthesis of early NO in roots of Jian-864 was mediated through nitrate reductase (NR) but not through NO synthase. Elevated antioxidant enzyme activities were induced by Al stress in both wheat genotypes and significantly enhanced by NO donor, but suppressed by NO scavenger or NR inhibitor. • These results suggest that an NR-mediated early NO burst plays an important role in Al resistance of wheat through modulating enhanced antioxidant defense to adapt to Al stress.