Dry desiccation-tolerant organ(ism)s leak cellular solutes when placed in water. Elevated temperatures at imbibition and elevated initial moisture contents reduce the leakage and promote growth. We have re-examined the effects of imbibitional stress imposed on cattail (Typha latifolia L.) pollen as a model anhydrobiotic system. A nitroxide spin probe technique and electron microscopy were used, allowing study of the permeability of the plasma membrane together with its visual intactness. Imbibitional leakage can be transient, or prolonged when associated with membrane damage. During the first 15 s of rehydration in medium, plasma membranes of pre-humidified pollen were highly permeable but became less permeable thereafter. The resulting transient leakage may affect vigour as measured by the rate of fresh weight increase, but did not reduce germination. A permanent, high permeability was observed when dry pollen was plunged into medium at low temperatures. This led to cell death and is associated with a phase change of the membranes from gel to liquid crystalline during imbibition. Freeze-fracture images indicate that the damage to plasma membranes is mechanically imposed by the pressure of the penetrating water rather than occurring structurally by a phase separation of membrane components. We suggest that a high rigidity of the plasma membranes in the gel phase at imbibition underlies imbibitional damage.