The large-scale replacement of gymnosperms by angiosperms in many ecological niches over time and the huge disparity in species numbers have led scientists to explore factors (e.g. polyploidy, developmental systems, floral evolution) that may have contributed to the astonishing rise of angiosperm diversity. Here, we explore genomic and ecological factors influencing seed plant genomes. This is timely given the recent surge in genomic data. We compare and contrast the genomic structure and evolution of angiosperms and gymnosperms and find that angiosperm genomes are more dynamic and diverse, particularly amongst the herbaceous species. Gymnosperms typically have reduced frequencies of a number of processes (e.g. polyploidy) that have shaped the genomes of other vascular plants and have alternative mechanisms to suppress genome dynamism (e.g. epigenetics and activity of transposable elements). Furthermore, the presence of several characters in angiosperms (e.g. herbaceous habit, short minimum generation time) has enabled them to exploit new niches and to be viable with small population sizes, where the power of genetic drift can outweigh that of selection. Together these processes have led to increased rates of genetic divergence and faster fixation times of variation in many angiosperms compared with gymnosperms. © 2012 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2012 New Phytologist Trust.