Heterotrophic gains of carbon from various host species by the root hemiparasitic shrub Olax phyllanthi (Labill) R.Br. were assessed using techniques based on carbon isotope discrimination (delta(13)C) On C3 and C4 hosts and C:N ratios of xylem sap and dry matter of host and parasite. Heterotrophic benefits (H) to Olax based on delta(13)C values were 30% and 19% from two non-native C4 hosts (Portulaca oleracea and Amaranthus caudatus respectively) compared with 13% and 15% from these hosts when computed on the basis of C:N ratios of host xylem sap and C and N increments of Olax dry matter. Nitrate was the source of N available to pot cultures of the above species and estimates based on C:N ratios assumed that all N accumulated by Olax: had come from nitrate absorbed by the host. Equivalent estimates of H for Olax, grown in nitrogen-free pot culture with the native N-2-fixing host Acacia littorea as its sole source of N, indicated 63% and 51% dependence on host carbon when assessed in terms of xylem sap composition of host and parasite respectively. Comparisons of xylem sap solutes of Olax and a range of partner hosts indicated marked selectivity in haustorial uptake and transfer of nitrate, amino compounds, organic acids and sugars. Possible implications of variations between hosts in absolute levels of C and inorganic and organic forms of N in xylem are discussed in relation to evidence of much better growth performance of Olax on Acacia littorea and other N-2-fixing legumes than on non-fixers.