Summer heat waves have already resulted in mortality of coastal communities, including ecologically important seagrass meadows. Gene expression studies from controlled experiments can provide important insight as to how species/genotypes react to extreme events that will increase under global warming. In a common stress garden, we exposed three populations of eelgrass, Zostera marina, to extreme sea surface temperatures, simulating the 2003-European heat wave. Populations came from locations widely differing in their thermal regime, two northern European locations [Ebeltoft (Kattegat), Doverodde (Limfjord, Baltic Sea)], and one southern population from Gabicce Mare (Adriatic Sea), allowing to test for population specificity in the response to a realistic heat stress event. Eelgrass survival and growth as well as the expression of 12 stress associated candidate genes were assessed during and after the heat wave. Contrary to expectations, all populations suffered equally from 3 weeks of heat stress in terms of shoot loss. In contrast, populations markedly differed in multivariate measures of gene expression. While the gene expression profiles converged to pre-stress values directly after the heat wave, stress correlated genes were upregulated again 4 weeks later, in line with the observed delay in shoot loss. Target genes had to be selected based on functional knowledge in terrestrial plants, nevertheless, 10/12 genes were induced relative to the control treatment at least once during the heat wave in the fully marine plant Z. marina. This study underlines the importance of realistic stress and recovery scenarios in studying the impact of predicted climate change.