We assessed the effects of irradiance received during growth on the vulnerability of Fagus sylvatica L. xylem vessels to water-stress-induced embolism. The measurements were conducted on (1) potted saplings acclimated for 2 years under 100% and 12% incident global radiation and (2) branches collected from sun-exposed and shaded sides of adult trees. Both experiments yielded similar results. Light-acclimated shoots were less vulnerable to embolism. Xylem water potential levels producing 50% loss of hydraulic conductivity were lower in sun-exposed branches and seedlings than in shade-grown ones (–3·0 versus –2·3 MPa on average). The differences in vulnerability were not correlated with differences in xylem hydraulic conductivity nor vessel diameter. Resistance to cavitation was correlated with transpiration rates, midday xylem and leaf water potentials in adult trees. We concluded that vulnerability to cavitation in Fagus sylvatica may acclimate to contrasting ambient light conditions.