Seeds (intact or slit) of lettuce (Luctuca sativa L.) cultivars with greater ability to produce ethylene germinated better under stressful conditions. Highly significant correlations were found between ethylene production and germination in 0.1 m NaCI (- 0.49 MPa) solution at 25C (r = 0.95, intact seeds), in - 0.3 MPa PEG solution (r = 0.86, intact seeds; r = 0.81, slit seeds), and in water at 32C (r = 0.80, slit seeds) or 35C (r = 0.80, slit seeds). Slitting the seed coat increased the ethylene production and improved germination during osmotic restraint in most cultivars, particularly in `Mesa 659' and `Super 59'. The differing ability of cultivars to produce ethylene during stress generally corresponded with their ability to generate germination potential. Ethylene production and germination potential in untreated and ACC-treated `Mesa 659' seeds increased upon slitting under stressful conditions. Thus, the ability of seeds to produce ethylene and to generate high germination potential under stressful conditions may be used as criteria to select stress-tolerant lettuce cultivars. Chemical names used: polyethylene glycol 8000 (PEG), 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid (ACC), (2-chlorethyl) phosphoric acid (ethephon).