The ancient cell adhesion fasciclin (FAS) domain is found in bacteria, fungi, algae, insects and animals, and occurs in a large family of fasciclin-like arabinogalactan proteins (FLAs) in higher plants. Functional roles for FAS-containing proteins have been determined for insects, algae and vertebrates; however, the biological functions of the various higher-plant FLAs are not clear. Expression of some FLAs has been correlated with the onset of secondary-wall cellulose synthesis in Arabidopsis stems, and also with wood formation in the stems and branches of trees, suggesting a biological role in plant stems. We examined whether FLAs contribute to plant stem biomechanics. Using phylogenetic, transcript abundance and promoter–GUS fusion analyses, we identified a conserved subset of single FAS domain FLAs (group A FLAs) in Eucalyptus and Arabidopsis that have specific and high transcript abundance in stems, particularly in stem cells undergoing secondary-wall deposition, and that the phylogenetic conservation appears to extend to other dicots and monocots. Gene-function analyses revealed that Arabidopsis T-DNA knockout double mutant stems had altered stem biomechanics with reduced tensile strength and a reduced tensile modulus of elasticity, as well as altered cell-wall architecture and composition, with increased cellulose microfibril angle and reduced arabinose, galactose and cellulose content. Using materials engineering concepts, we relate the effects of these FLAs on cell-wall composition with stem biomechanics. Our results suggest that a subset of single FAS domain FLAs contributes to plant stem strength by affecting cellulose deposition, and to the stem modulus of elasticity by affecting the integrity of the cell-wall matrix.