†Background Putative phytogeographical links between America (especially North America) and the Hawaiian Islands have figured prominently in disagreement and debate about the origin of Pacific floras and the efficacy of long-distance (oversea) plant dispersal, given the obstacles to explaining such major disjunctions by vicariance. † Scope Review of past efforts, and of progress over the last 20 years, toward understanding relationships of Hawaiian angiosperms allows for a historically informed re-evaluation of the American (New World) contribution to Hawaiian diversity and evolutionary activity of American lineages in an insular setting. †Conclusions Temperate and boreal North America is a much more important source of Hawaiian flora than suggested by most 20th century authorities on Pacific plant life, such as Fosberg and Skottsberg. Early views of evolution as too slow to account for divergence of highly distinctive endemics within the Hawaiian geological time frame evidently impeded biogeographical understanding, as did lack of appreciation for the importance of rare, often biotically mediated dispersal events and ecological opportunity in island ecosystems. Molecular phylogenetic evidence for North American ancestry of Hawaiian plant radiations, such as the silversword alliance, mints, sanicles, violets, schiedeas and spurges, underlines the potential of long-distance dispersal to shape floras, in accordance with hypotheses championed by Carlquist. Characteristics important to colonization of the islands, such as dispersibility by birds and ancestral hybridization or polyploidy, and ecological opportunities associated with ‘sky islands’ of temperate or boreal climate in the tropical Hawaiian archipelago may have been key to extensive diversification of endemic lineages of North American origin that are among the most species-rich clades of Hawaiian plants. Evident youth of flowering-plant lineages from North America is highly consistent with recent geological evidence for lack of high-elevation settings in the Hawaiian chain immediately prior to formation of the oldest, modern high-elevation island, Kaua‘i.