We examined axon-target interactions in cocultures of embryonic rat trigeminal, dorsal root, nodose, superior cervical ganglia or retina with a variety of native or foreign peripheral targets such as the whisker pad, forepaw, and heart explants. Axon growth into these peripheral target tissues was analyzed by the use of lipophilic tracer DiI. Embryonic day 15 dorsal root and trigeminal axons grew into isochronic normal and foreign cutaneous targets. Both axon populations avoided the same age heart tissue, but grew profusely into younger (embryonic day 13) or older (postnatal) heart explants. In contrast, embryonic day 15 superior cervical or nodose ganglion axons grew heavily into the same age heart and forepaw explants and to a lesser extent into the whisker pad explants. Embryonic day 15 retinal axons grew into all three peripheral targets used in this study. Primary sensory and sympathetic axons, but not retinal axons, formed target-specific patterns in the whisker pad and forepaw explants. DiI-labeling and immunostaining of primary sensory neurons in coculture revealed that these neurons retain their bipolar characteristics, and express class-specific markers such as parvalbumin, calcitonin gene-related peptide and TrkA receptors. In the whisker pad explants, axons positive for all three markers were seen to form patterns around the follicles. Our results indicate that developing peripheral targets can attract and support axon growth from a variety of sources. Whereas neurotrophins play a major role in attracting and supporting survival of subpopulations of sensory neurons, other substrates-bound or locally released molecules must regulate sensory neurite growth into specific peripheral and central targets.