Differences in species diversity over continental scales represent imprints of evolutionary, ecological, and biogeographic events. Here, we investigate whether the higher tree species richness in South America relative to Africa is due to higher richness in certain taxonomic clades, irrespective of vegetation type, or instead due to higher richness in specific biomes across all taxonomic clades. We used tree species inventory data to address this topic and began by clustering inventories from each continent based on species composition to derive comparable vegetation units. We found that moist forests in South America hold approximately four times more tree species than do moist forests in Africa, supporting previous studies. We also show that dry vegetation types in South America, such as tropical dry forests and savannas, hold twice as many tree species as do those in Africa, even though they cover a much larger area in Africa, at present and over geological time. Overall, we show that the marked species richness difference between South America and Africa is due primarily to a key group of families in the South American Amazon and Atlantic moist forests, which while present and speciose in Africa, are markedly less diverse there. Moreover, we demonstrate that both South American and African tree floras are organized similarly and that speciose families on one continent are likely speciose on the other. Future phylogenetic and functional trait work focusing on these key families should provide further insight into the processes leading to South America’s exceptional plant species diversity.