Definitions of character states in woods are softer than generally assumed, and more complex for workers to interpret. Only by a constant effort to transcend the limitations of glossaries can a more than partial understanding of wood anatomy and its evolution be achieved. The need for such an effort is most evident in a major group with sufficient wood diversity to demonstrate numerous problems in wood anatomical features. Caryophyllales s.l., with approximately 12 000 species, are such a group. Paradoxically, Caryophyllales offer many more interpretive problems than other ‘typically woody’ eudicot clades of comparable size: a wider range of wood structural patterns is represented in the order. An account of character expression diversity is presented for major wood characters of Caryophyllales. These characters include successive cambia (more extensively represented in Caryophyllales than elsewhere in angiosperms); vessel element perforation plates (non-bordered and bordered, with and without constrictions); lateral wall pitting of vessels (notably pseudoscalariform patterns); vesturing and sculpturing on vessel walls; grouping of vessels; nature of tracheids and fibre-tracheids, storying in libriform fibres, types of axial parenchyma, ray anatomy and shifts in ray ontogeny; juvenilism in rays; raylessness; occurrence of idioblasts; occurrence of a new cell type (ancistrocladan cells); correlations of raylessness with scattered bundle occurrence and other anatomical discoveries newly described and/or understood through the use of scanning electron microscopy and light microscopy. This study goes beyond summarizing or reportage and attempts interpretations in terms of shifts in degrees of juvenilism, diversification in habit, ecological occupancy strategies (with special attention to succulence) and phylogenetic change. Phylogenetic change in wood anatomy is held to be best interpreted when accompanied by an understanding of wood ontogeny, species ecology, species habit and taxonomic context. Wood anatomy of Caryophyllales demonstrates problems inherent in binary character definitions, mapping of morphological characters onto DNA-based trees and attempts to analyse wood structure without taking into account ecological and habital features. The difficulties of bridging wood anatomy with physiology and ecology are briefly reviewed. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 164, 342–393.