Recent reports suggest that early sensing of soil water stress by plant roots and the concomitant reduction in stomatal conductance may not be mediated by root-sourced abscisic acid (ABA), but that other xylem-borne chemicals may be the primary stress signal(s). To gain more insight into the role of root-sourced ABA, the timing and location of the expression of genes for key enzymes involved in ABA biosynthesis in Zea mays roots was measured and a comprehensive analysis of root xylem sap constituents from the early to the later stages of water stress was conducted. Xylem sap and roots were sampled from plants at an early stage of water stress when only a reduction in leaf conductance was measured, as well as at later stages when leaf xylem pressure potential decreased. It was found that the majority of ABA biosynthetic genes examined were only significantly expressed in the elongation region of roots at a later stage of water stress. Apart from ABA, sulphate was the only xylem-borne chemical that consistently showed significantly higher concentrations from the early to the later stages of stress. Moreover, there was an interactive effect of ABA and sulphate in decreasing maize transpiration rate and Vicia faba stomatal aperture, as compared to ABA alone. The expression of a sulphate transporter gene was also analysed and it was found that it had increased in the elongation region of roots from the early to the later stages of water stress. Our results support the suggestion that in the early stage of water stress, increased levels of ABA in xylem sap may not be due to root biosynthesis, ABA glucose ester catabolism or pH-mediated redistribution, but may be due to shoot biosynthesis and translocation to the roots. The analysis of xylem sap mineral content and bioassays indicate that the anti-transpirant effect of the ABA reaching the stomata at the early stages of water stress may be enhanced by the increased concentrations of sulphate in the xylem which is also transported from the roots to the leaves.