Xylem parenchyma cells (XPCs) control the composition of the transpiration stream in plants and are thought to play a role in long-distance signaling as well. We addressed the regulation, selectivity, and dependence on the apoplastic ion concentrations of two types of outward rectifiers in the plasma membrane of XPCs, to assess the physiological role of these conductances. In whole-cell recordings, the membrane conductance at depolarization was under the control of cytosolic Ca2+: at physiological Ca2+ levels (150 nM) the K+ outward-rectifying conductance (KORC) predominated, whereas at elevated Ca2+ levels (5 [mu]M), only the nonselective outward-rectifying conductance (NORC) was active. No such regulatory effect of Ca2+ was observed in inside-out experiments. The voltage dependence of whole-cell KORC currents strongly depended on apoplastic K+ concentration: an increase in apoplastic K+ resulted in a positive shift of the current-voltage curve, roughly following the shift in Nernst potential of K+. KORC is impermeable to Na+, but does translocate Ca2+ in addition to K+. In contrast to KORC, NORC selected poorly among monovalent cations and anions, the relative permeability PC+/PA- being about 1.9. Gating of NORC was largely unaffected by the level of K+ in the bath. Under all ionic conditions tested, NORC tail currents or single-channel currents reversed close to 0 mV. Using an in vivo xylem-perfusion technique, tetraethylammonium (an inhibitor of KORC) was shown to block K+ transport to the shoot. These data support the hypothesis that release of K+ to the xylem sap is mediated by KORC. The molecular properties of these two conductances are discussed in the light of the distinct physiological role of XPCs.