The colonization and radiation of multicellular plants on land that started over 470 Ma was one of the defining events in the history of this planet. For the first time, large amounts of primary productivity occurred on the continental surface, paving the way for the evolution of complex terrestrial ecosystems and altering global biogeochemical cycles; increased weathering of continental silicates and organic carbon burial resulted in a 90 per cent reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The evolution of plants on land was itself characterized by a series of radical transformations of their body plans that included the formation of three-dimensional tissues, de novo evolution of a multicellular diploid sporophyte generation, evolution of multicellular meristems, and the development of specialized tissues and organ systems such as vasculature, roots, leaves, seeds and flowers. In this review, we discuss the evolution of the genes and developmental mechanisms that drove the explosion of plant morphologies on land. Recent studies indicate that many of the gene families which control development in extant plants were already present in the earliest land plants. This suggests that the evolution of novel morphologies was to a large degree driven by the reassembly and reuse of pre-existing genetic mechanisms.