Ecological conditions, such as high habitat diversity and the absence of competitors, have been proposed as key determinants of the patterns of speciation observed in oceanic island floras. However, the relationship between plant traits and lineage diversification has received less attention. Here, we review 120 published phylogenetic and population genetic studies of three well-studied oceanic archipelagos (Canary Islands, Galápagos and Hawai‘i) to investigate potential associations between life history characters (growth form and fruit type) and patterns of diversification. The available data suggest that the phenotypic syndrome ‘herbaceous-dry fruited’ was predominant among ancestors of species-rich lineages, although the Hawaiian flora also shows a substantial proportion of ‘woody-fleshy fruited’ ancestors. Growth form, unlike fruit type, is shown to be a labile character strongly selected for woodiness, particularly in radiating lineages. Dry fruits, although representative of diverse dispersal modes and efficacies, are generally associated with a low incidence of inter-island colonization, and the analysis of population genetic data confirms strong genetic differentiation among islands for dry fruited species of radiating lineages. In contrast, fleshy fruited species of monotypic lineages typically show widespread distributions coupled with extensive gene flow among islands, which probably impedes speciation. Our analyses suggest that fruit types associated with limited evidence of dispersal promote recurrent speciation within lineages, although particular character states related to speciation appear to be context dependent. This study reinforces the idea that plant traits associated with island colonization and population persistence are, in addition to ecological conditions, important factors in understanding the patterns of diversification on islands. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2014, 174, 334–348.