Vertebrates have evolved a sophisticated adaptive immune system that relies on an almost infinite diversity of antigen receptors that are clonally expressed by specialized immune cells that roam the circulatory system. These immune cells provide vertebrates with extraordinary antigen-specific immune capacity and memory, while minimizing self-reactivity. Plants, however, lack specialized mobile immune cells. Instead, every plant cell is thought to be capable of launching an effective immune response. So how do plants achieve specific, self-tolerant immunity and establish immune memory? Recent developments point towards a multilayered plant innate immune system comprised of self-surveillance, systemic signalling and chromosomal changes that together establish effective immunity.