Assessments of seed storage physiology among Arecaceae (palm) species are often inconclusive because seeds exhibit diverse responses to low temperature and moisture conditions. Interrelationships between dry matter accumulation, cell structure and water relations during seed development of the endangered Hawaiian endemic palm, Pritchardia remota, suggest that damage from drying results from mechanical strain. Endosperm and fruits accumulate dry mass through most of the 400 d gestation period, but embryos reached maximum dry mass about 250 d post-anthesis (DPA). Mostly sucrose and some triacylglycerols accumulated in the cytoplasm and vacuoles of embryo cells, and organelles in mature embryo cells de-differentiated. Water content and water potential decreased as embryos matured and embryos contained about 0.45 g H2O (g dry mass)− 1 ( − 26 MPa) at shedding. Mature embryos survived drying to 0.16 g g− 1 ( − 49 MPa), but further drying was lethal. A model of allowable cell shrinkage is consistent with the substantial, but incomplete, desiccation tolerance acquired in P. remota embryos, and provides a new framework to explain variation in critical water contents as embryos develop. We suggest that desiccation tolerance, which distinguishes recalcitrant and orthodox physiologies among seeds, can be quantified by mechanical strain when embryo cells shrink during drying.