Saline soils contain multiple types of salt, each of which may exert a different effect on seed germination and seedling growth of plants. The effects of five types of salt on the initial growth of Haloxylon ammodendron, a shrub found on both saline and non-saline areas in deserts of China, were investigated. Seeds were incubated at 20°;C in the dark in a solution (0 to –5.1 MPa) of a salt (NaCl, MgCl2, CaCl2, Na2SO4 or MgSO4) or polyethylene glycol (PEG)-6000, or in a salt (NaCl or MgCl2) or PEG solution containing a low concentration of CaCl2. Seed germination, seedling growth and cation (Na+, Mg2+, Ca2+ and K+) contents of seedlings were examined. Each salt had a different effect on seed germination, seedling growth and influx and outflux of cations in the seedlings. In both NaCl and MgCl2 treatments, the addition of low concentrations of CaCl2 favoured seed germination and seedling growth, and reduced K+ outflux from seedlings, but caused no appreciable decrease in the influx of Na+ or Mg2+ into seedlings. Marked abnormalities in seedlings were found only in treatments with Mg2+ salts, but these effects were completely alleviated by a low concentration of Ca2+ (Ca2+/Mg2+ = 0.012). The different responses of the initial growth in H. ammodendron to different isotonic salt solutions were attributed to differences among salt components in membrane permeability, toxicity and effects on functions of the plasma membrane and/or the cell wall.