This study summarises European research on seed banks in temperate forest systems and analyses for differences in seed bank composition between geographically scattered forests with a different land use history. Special attention is given to seed bank characteristics of ancient forest species. Results of Detrended Correspondence Analysis suggest that historical land use is a key factor in determining the seed bank composition. Particularly seed banks of forests on former heathland sites differ from seed banks of ancient forest due to a high contribution of early successional species. The effect of former land use decreases after 50 yr, due to seed senescence. Total seed density decreases with recent forest age. Seed bank composition of eastern European forests is different from northern or western European forests, a difference which is mainly caused by species with a higher Ellenberg indicator value for continentality, temperature and reaction. In general, ancient forest species are poorly represented. Only a limited number is mentioned to have a persistent seed bank, and their densities are relatively low, which means that restoration of typical ancient forest vegetation can not rely on the seed bank. However, there is still a considerable lack of knowledge concerning seed bank and germination characteristics of forest species.