X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) was used to study the distribution of elements and main wood components (cellulose and lignin) within the wood and at the bark/wood interface of a living hybrid aspen stem. The hybrid aspen was grown upright in a greenhouse and then tilted at similar to45degrees to induce tension wood formation and upright bending of the stem. The wood between the pith and the bark on the upper side of the tilted stem was analysed. Changes in the middle lamella/S1 layer chemical composition, which corresponded to the transition from normal wood produced during upright stem growth to tension wood produced upon stem tilting, were observed. Such changes were related to the lower lignin and higher cellulose/hemicellulose contents in the tension wood. A non-uniform radial distribution of nitrogen (amino acids, proteins) within the stem was also noted. At the bark/wood interface the presence of inorganic elements (Ca, K and P) and a significant increase in nitrogen were found. The opposite wood side of the tree was enriched in lignin and fatty acids. It was shown that application of XPS imaging to a very rough surface of wood split allows the inhomogeneous lateral lignin distribution to be visualized. Copyright (C) 2002 John Wiley Sons, Ltd.