Pectin is a major component of primary cell walls of all land plants and encompasses a range of galacturonic acid-rich polysaccharides. Three major pectic polysaccharides (homogalacturonan, rhamnogalacturonan-I and rhamnogalacturonan-II) are thought to occur in all primary cell walls. This review surveys what is known about the structure and function of these pectin domains. The high degree of structural complexity and heterogeneity of the pectic matrix is produced both during biosynthesis in the endomembrane system and as a result of the action of an array of wall-based pectin-modifying enzymes. Recent developments in analytical techniques and in the generation of anti-pectin probes have begun to place the structural complexity of pectin in cell biological and developmental contexts. The in muro de-methyl-esterification of homogalacturonan by pectin methyl esterases is emerging as a key process for the local modulation of matrix properties. Rhamnogalacturonan-I comprises a highly diverse population of spatially and developmentally regulated polymers, whereas rhamnogalacturonan-II appears to be a highly conserved and stable pectic domain. Current knowledge of biosynthetic enzymes, plant and microbial pectinases and the interactions of pectin with other cell wall components and the impact of molecular genetic approaches are reviewed in terms of the functional analysis of pectic polysaccharides in plant growth and development.