The evergreen-sclerophyllous vegetation associated to the mediterranean-type ecosystems shares common characteristics that have been explained invoking an evolutionary convergence driven by the mediterranean climate. Mediterranean climate originated in the Quaternary but the plant ‘convergent’ characteristics are also present in tropical-like lineages that evolved along the Tertiary, before the mediterranean climate appeared. Because evergreen-sclerophyllous vegetation was broadly distributed across the world in the Tertiary, current trait similarities among the mediterranean taxa may be due to historical and phylogenetical constraints and not to evolutionary convergence. We tested historical and phylogenetical vs. convergence hypotheses to explain present ecological attributes found in woody plant species in mediterranean areas. Multivariate analyses were performed on the matrix of genera × life-history reproductive characteristics in three mediterranean-type ecosystems and a tropical system as an outgroup, the Mexical shrubland. These analyses indicate that character syndromes in mediterranean plants may largely be explained in relation to the age of the lineage (Tertiary vs. Quaternary). We also found that the similarities shown among mediterranean vegetations are due to Tertiary (pre-mediterranean-) and not to Quaternary (true mediterranean-) taxa. Furthermore, the similarities among mediterranean taxa are due to phylogenetical inertia because similarities in the character syndromes disappear when common genera are excluded from the analysis. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2003, 78, 415–427.