The gaseous environment surrounding parenchyma in woody tissue is low in O2 and high in CO2, but it is not known to what extent this affects respiration or might play a role in cell death during heartwood formation. Sapwood respiration was measured in two conifers and three angiosperms following equilibration to levels of O2 and CO2 common within stems, using both inner and outer sapwood to test for an effect of age. Across all species and tissue ages, lowering the O2 level from 10% to 5% (v/v) resulted in about a 25% decrease in respiration in the absence of CO2, but a non-significant decrease at 10% CO2. The inhibitory effect of 10% CO2 was smaller and only significant at 10% O2, where it reduced respiration by about 14%. Equilibration to a wider range of gas combinations in Pinus strobus L. showed the same effect: 10% CO2 inhibited respiration by about 15% at both 20% and 10% O2, but had no net effect at 5% O2. In an extreme treatment, 1% O2+20% CO2 increased respiration by over 30% relative to 1% O2 alone, suggesting a shift in metabolic response to high CO2 as O2 decreases. Although an increase in respiration would be detrimental under limiting O2, this extreme gas combination is unlikely to exist within most stems. Instead, moderate reductions in respiration under realistic O2 and CO2 levels suggest that within-stem gas composition does not severely limit respiration and is unlikely to cause the death of xylem parenchyma during heartwood formation.