Recalcitrant seeds are shed moist from the plant and do not survive desiccation to the low moisture contents required for prolonged storage. It has been widely hypothesised that during desiccation of these seeds a stress induced metabolic imbalance develops that leads to free radical mediated damage and viability loss. We investigated this hypothesis in a comparison of two sympatric species of Acer during late seed development and post-harvest desiccation: A. platanoides (Norway maple) has orthodox seeds and A. pseudoplatanus (sycamore) has recalcitrant seeds. In both species, respiration rates declined to similar levels at shedding, and the extent of defences against free radicals appears no less in sycamore than that in Norway maple. During drying there was no evidence for the accumulation of a stable free radical, increased lipid peroxidation or decline in free radical scavenging enzymes in either species. In addition, there was a very similar, large increase in total tocopherol in both species. This increase in sycamore was largely of alpha-tocopherol, whereas in Norway maple the increase was largely from its precursor, gamma-tocopherol. Arguably this suggests a similar mechanism in both species, but increased oxidative stress in sycamore. In general, the results suggest that, although damage resulting in viability loss was clearly taking place, the limitation to desiccation tolerance did not result from inadequate free radical scavenging. Soluble carbohydrates and dehydrin-like proteins were also measured during late seed development and drying in sycamore and Norway maple. The greater concentrations of sucrose, raffinose and stachyose and amounts of dehydrins in the radicles and cotyledons of Norway maple compared with those in sycamore was consistent with greater desiccation tolerance in the former. Sycamore seeds are dormant and at the tolerant end of the continuum of desiccation sensitivity among recalcitrant species, and this may account for their different response to that of the seeds of other more sensitive recalcitrant species studied.