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Abstract Aim A detailed database of distributions and phylogenetic relationships of native Hawaiian flowering plant species is used to weigh the relative influences of environmental and historical factors on species numbers and endemism. Location The Hawaiian Islands are isolated in the North Pacific Ocean nearly 4000 km from the nearest continent and nearly as distant from the closest high islands, the Marquesas. The range of island sizes, environments, and geological histories within an extremely isolated archipelago make the Hawaiian Islands an ideal system in which to study spatial variation in species distributions and diversity. Because the biota is derived from colonization followed by extensive speciation, the role of evolution in shaping the regional species assemblage can be readily examined. Methods For whole islands and regions of each major habitat, species–area relationships were assessed. Residuals of species–area relationships were subjected to correlation analysis with measures of endemism, isolation, elevation and island age. Putative groups of descendents of each colonist from outside the Hawaiian Islands were considered phylogenetic lineages whose distributions were included in analyses. Results The species–area relationship is a prominent pattern among islands and among regions of each given habitat. Species number in each case correlates positively with number of endemics, number of lineages and number of species per lineage. For mesic and wet habitat regions, island age is more influential than area on species numbers, with older islands having more species, more single-island endemics, and higher species : lineage ratios than their areas alone would predict. Main conclusions Because species numbers and endemism are closely tied to speciation in the Hawaiian flora, particularly in the most species-rich phylogenetic lineages, individual islands’ histories are central in shaping their biota. The Maui Nui complex of islands (Maui, Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i and Kaho‘olawe), which formed a single large landmass during most of its history, is best viewed in terms of either the age or area of the complex as a whole, rather than the individual islands existing today.