Islands harbour a significant portion of all plant species worldwide. Their biota are often characterized by narrow distributions and are particularly susceptible to biological invasions and climate change. To date, the global richness pattern of islands is only poorly documented and factors causing differences in species numbers remain controversial. Here, we present the first global analysis of 488 island and 970 mainland floras. We test the relationship between island characteristics (area, isolation, topography, climate and geology) and species richness using traditional and spatial models. Area is the strongest determinant of island species numbers (R2 = 0.66) but a weaker predictor for mainlands (R2 = 0.25). Multivariate analyses reveal that all investigated variables significantly contribute to insular species richness with area being the strongest followed by isolation, temperature and precipitation with about equally strong effects. Elevation and island geology show relatively weak yet significant effects. Together these variables account for 85% of the global variation in species richness.