Cryostorage (usually in, or above liquid nitrogen) is presently the only option for long-term germplasm conservation of species producing recalcitrant (desiccation-sensitive) seeds. The present study investigated the ultrastructural responses of zygotic embryos excised from recalcitrant Amaryllis belladonna seeds to the sequential steps involved in cryopreservation. Flash-dried embryos, with and without prior sucrose (non-penetrating) or glycerol (penetrating) cryoprotection, were cooled rapidly or slowly, recovered in vitro and then assessed for ultrastructural and viability responses. Untreated embryos were 100% viable, the ultrastructure being indicative of their actively metabolic condition. Although nuclear morphology changed, viability was unaffected after exposure to either glycerol or sucrose, but mitochondrial ultrastructure suggested enhancement of metabolic activity particularly after sucrose treatment. When flash dried after sucrose cryoprotection, a significant increase in the degree of vacuolation, abnormal plastid ultrastructure and some wall abnormality accompanied a decline in survival to 70% and 60% at water contents > and <0.4 g g(-1), respectively. In contrast, glycerol cryoprotection, which promoted retention of generally normal ultrastructure and also counteracted any increase in the degree of vacuolation, was associated with 100% and 90% survival of embryos at the higher and lower water contents. After exposure to liquid nitrogen (LN), ultrastructural irregularities were minimal in rapidly cooled glycerol-cryoprotected embryos, at water content <0.4 g g(-1), which showed 70% survival after retrieval from cryogenic conditions. At the other extreme, no embryos survived LN exposure when sucrose cryoprotected. The study relates the cumulative effects of subcellular abnormality and declining viability, in relation to experimental parameters for cryopreservation.