Studies to elucidate the biochemical basis of survival of excised embryonic axes (EAs) of recalcitrant seeds of Trichilia dregeana at different drying rates revealed significant differences between slow and rapid drying. Rapid drying allowed these EAs to survive dehydration to much lower water contents (WCs; ca. 0.31 g g−1 dry mass basis with 73% germination) compared with slow drying, where 90% of the EAs lost viability at a WC of ca. 0.79 g g−1. In EAs slowly dried within seeds, the levels of hydroxyl radical (three- to fivefold at WCs >0.5 g g−1) and lipid peroxidation (50% at similar WC) were significantly higher compared with those dried rapidly to comparable WCs. When EAs were dried slowly, enzymic antioxidant levels were not sustained and declined significantly with prolonged storage. In contrast, sustained activity of enzymic antioxidants was detected in rapidly dried EAs even at relatively low WCs. Furthermore, the greater decline in glutathione (GSH)/GSH disulphide ratio in EAs slowly dried within seeds compared with rapidly dried EAs and a shift in GSH redox potential to relatively more positive values in the EAs slowly dried within seeds was correlated with considerable viability loss. It is apparent from this study that greater retention of viability to lower WCs in rapidly dried EAs from recalcitrant seeds may at least be partly explained by the retention of functional antioxidant status. It is also suggested that the reduction of viability in rapidly dried EAs at very low WCs appears to be a non-oxidative process.