Although there is clear evidence for the establishment of terrestrial plant life by the end of the Ordovician, the fossil record indicates that land plants remained extremely small and structurally simple until the Late Silurian. Among the events associated with this first major radiation of land plants is the evolution of tracheids, complex water–conducting cells defined by the presence of lignified secondary cell wall thickenings. Recent palaeobotanical analyses indicate that Early Devonian tracheids appear to possess secondary cell wall thickenings composed of two distinct layers: a degradation–prone layer adjacent to the primary cell wall and a degradation–resistant (possibly lignified) layer next to the cell lumen. In order to understand better the early evolution of tracheids, developmental and comparative studies of key basal (and potentially plesiomorphic) extant vascular plants have been initiated. Ultra–structural analysis and enzyme degradation studies of wall structure (to approximate diagenetic alterations of fossil tracheid structure) have been conducted on basal members of each of the two major clades of extant vascular plants: Huperzia (Lycophytina) and Equisetum (Euphyllophytina). This research demonstrates that secondary cell walls of extant basal vascular plants include a degradation–prone layer (‘template layer’) and a degradation–resistant layer (‘resistant layer’). This pattern of secondary cell wall formation in the water–conducting cells of extant vascular plants matches the pattern of wall thickenings in the tracheids of early fossil vascular plants and provides a key evolutionary link between tracheids of living vascular plants and those of their earliest fossil ancestors. Further studies of tracheid development and structure among basal extant vascular plants will lead to a more precise reconstruction of the early evolution of water–conducting tissues in land plants, and will add to the current limited knowledge of spatial, temporal and cytochemical aspects of cell wall formation in tracheary elements of vascular plants.