Abstract Aim To test for control of vascular plant species richness in the riparian corridor by exploring three contrasting (although not mutually exclusive) hypotheses: (1) longitudinal patterns in riparian plant species richness are governed by local, river-related processes independent of the regional species richness, (2) riparian plant species richness is controlled by dispersal along the river (longitudinal control), and (3) the variation in riparian plant species richness mirrors variation in regional richness (lateral control). Location The riparian zones of the free-flowing Vindel River and its surrounding river valley, northern Sweden. Methods We used data from three surveys, undertaken at 10-year intervals, of riparian reaches (200-m stretches of riverbank) spanning the entire river. In addition, we surveyed species richness of vascular plants in the uplands adjacent to the river in 3.75-km2 large plots along the same regional gradient. We explored the relationship between riparian and upland flora, and various environmental variables. We also evaluated temporal variation in downstream patterns of the riparian flora. Results Our results suggest that local species richness in boreal rivers is mainly a result of local, river-related processes and dispersal along the corridor. The strongest correlation between species richness and the environment was a negative one between species number and soil pH, but pH varied within a narrow range. We did not find evidence for a correlation between species richness on regional and local scales. We found that the local patterns of species richness for naturally occurring vascular plants were temporally variable, probably in response to large-scale disturbance caused by extreme floods. Most previous studies have found a unimodal pattern of species richness with peaks in the middle reaches of a river. In contrast, on two of three occasions corresponding to major flooding events, we found that the distribution of species richness of naturally occurring vascular plants resembled that of regional diversity: a monotonic decrease from headwater to coast. We also found high floristic similarity between the riparian corridor and the surrounding landscape. Main conclusions These results suggest that local processes control patterns of riparian species richness, but that species composition is also highly dependent on the regional species pool. We argue that inter-annual variation in flood disturbance is probably the most important factor producing temporal variability of longitudinal species richness patterns.