Physiological and biochemical responses of Hordeum maritimum and H. vulgare to salt stress were studied over a 60-h period. Growth at increasing salinity levels (0, 100, 200 and 300 mM NaCl) was assessed in hydroponic culture. H. maritimum was shown to be a true halophyte via its typical behaviour at high salinity. Shoot growth of cultivated barley was gradually reduced with increasing salinity, whereas that of wild barley was enhanced at 100 and 200 mm NaCl then slightly reduced at 300 mM NaCl. The higher salt tolerance of H. maritimum as compared to H. vulgare was due to its higher capacity to maintain cell turgor under severe salinity. Furthermore, H. maritimum exhibited fine regulation of Na+ transport from roots to shoots and, unlike H. vulgare, it accumulated less Na+ in shoots than in roots. In addition, H. maritimum can accumulate more Na+ than K+ in both roots and shoots without the appearance of toxicity symptoms, indicating that Na+ was well compartmentalized within cells and substituted K+ in osmotic adjustment. The higher degree of salt tolerance of H. maritimum is further demonstrated by its economic strategy: at moderate salt treatment (100 mm NaCl), it used inorganic solutes (such as Na+) for osmotic adjustment and kept organic solutes and a large part of the K+ for metabolic activities. Indeed, K+ use efficiency in H. maritimum was about twofold that in H. vulgare; the former started to use organic solutes as osmotica only at high salinity (200 and 300 mm NaCl). These results suggest that the differences in salt tolerance between H. maritimum and H. vulgare are partly due to (i) differences in control of Na+ transport from roots to shoots, and (ii) H. maritimum uses Na+ as an osmoticum instead of K+ and organic solutes. These factors are differently reflected in growth.