The effect of increasing application of zinc (Zn) and cadmium (Cd) on shoot dry weight and shoot concentrations of Zn and Cd was studied in bread and durum wheat cultivars. Plants were grown in severely Zn-deficient calcareous soil treated with increasing Zn (0 and 10 mg kg(-1) soil) and Cd (0, 10 and 25 mg kg(-1) soil) and harvested after 35 and 65 days of growth under greenhouse conditions. Growing plants without Zn fertilization caused severe depression in shoot growth, especially in durum wheat and at high Cd treatment. Cadmium treatments resulted in rapid development of necrotic patches on the base and sheath parts of the oldest leaves of both wheat cultivars, but symptoms were more severe in durum wheat and under Zn deficiency. Decreases in shoot dry weight from increasing Cd application were more severe in Zn-deficient plants. Severity of Cd toxicity symptoms in durum and bread wheat at different Zn treatments did not show any relation to the Cd concentrations in shoot. Increasing Cd application to Zn-deficient plants tended to decrease Zn concentrations in Zn-deficient plants, whereas in plants with adequate Zn, concentrations of Zn were either not affected or increased by Cd. The results show that durum wheat was more sensitive to both Zn deficiency and Cd toxicity as compared to bread wheat. Cadmium toxicity in the shoot was alleviated by Zn treatment, but this was not accompanied by a corresponding decrease in shoot concentrations of Cd. Our results are compatible with the hypothesis that Zn protects plants from Cd toxicity by improving plant defense against Cd-induced oxidative stress and by competing with Cd for binding to critical cell constituents such as enzymes and membrane protein and lipids. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.