Control of proteolysis is important for plant growth, development, responses to stress, and defence against insects and pathogens. Members of the serpin protein family are likely to play a critical role in this control through irreversible inhibition of endogenous and exogenous target proteinases. Serpins have been found in diverse species of the plant kingdom and represent a distinct clade among serpins in multicellular organisms. Serpins are also found in green algae, but the evolutionary relationship between these serpins and those of plants remains unknown. Plant serpins are potent inhibitors of mammalian serine proteinases of the chymotrypsin family in vitro but, intriguingly, plants and green algae lack endogenous members of this proteinase family, the most common targets for animal serpins. An Arabidopsis serpin with a conserved reactive centre is now known to be capable of inhibiting an endogenous cysteine proteinase. Here, knowledge of plant serpins in terms of sequence diversity, inhibitory specificity, gene expression and function is reviewed. This was advanced through a phylogenetic analysis of amino acid sequences of expressed plant serpins, delineation of plant serpin gene structures and prediction of inhibitory specificities based on identification of reactive centres. The review is intended to encourage elucidation of plant serpin functions.