Main conclusion Besides being an important model to study desiccation tolerance, the induction of desiccation tolerance in germinated seeds may also play an ecological role in seedling establishment. Desiccation tolerance (DT) is the ability of certain organisms to survive extreme water losses without accumulation of lethal damage. This was a key feature in the conquering of dry land and is currently found in all taxa including bacteria, fungi, roundworms and plants. Not surprisingly, studies in various fields have been performed to unravel this intriguing phenomenon. In flowering plants, DT is rare in whole plants (vegetative tissues), yet is common in seeds. In this review, we present our current understanding of the evolution of DT in plants. We focus on the acquisition of DT in seeds and the subsequent loss during and after germination by highlighting and comparing research in two model plants Medicago truncatula and Arabidopsis thaliana. Finally, we discuss the ability of seeds to re-establish DT during post-germination, the possible ecological meaning of this phenomenon, and the hypothesis that DT, in combination with dormancy, optimizes seedling establishment.