Ferulate 5-hydroxylase (F5H) is a cytochrome P450-dependent monooxygenase that catalyses the hydroxylation of ferulic acid, coniferaldehyde and coniferyl alcohol in the pathways leading to sinapic acid and syringyl lignin biosynthesis. Earlier studies in Arabidopsis have demonstrated that F5H over-expression increases lignin syringyl monomer content and abolishes the tissue-specificity of its deposition. To determine whether this enzyme has a similar regulatory role in plants that undergo secondary growth, we over-expressed the F5H gene in tobacco and poplar. In tobacco, over-expression of F5H under the control of the cauliflower mosaic virus 35S promoter increased lignin syringyl monomer content in petioles, but had no detectable effect on lignification in stems. By contrast, when the cinnamate 4-hydroxylase (C4H) promoter was used to drive F5H expression, there was a significant increase in stem lignin syringyl monomer content. Yields of thioglycolic acid and Klason lignin in C4H–F5H lines were lower than in the wild-type, suggesting that F5H over-expression leads to a reduced deposition or an altered extractability of lignin in the transgenic plants. Histochemical analysis suggested that the novel lignin in C4H–F5H transgenic lines was altered in its content of hydroxycinnamyl aldehydes. Transgenic poplar trees carrying the C4H–F5H transgene also displayed enhanced lignin syringyl monomer content. Taken together, these data show that hydroxylation of guaiacyl-substituted lignin precursors controls lignin monomer composition in woody plants, and that F5H over-expression is a viable metabolic engineering strategy for modifying lignin biosynthesis in forest species.