Phytochromes are plant photoreceptors important for development and adaptation to the environment. Phytochrome A (PHYA) is essential for the far-red (FR) high-irradiance responses (HIRs), which are of particular ecological relevance as they enable plants to establish under shade conditions. PHYA and HIRs have been considered unique to seed plants because the divergence of seed plants and cryptogams (e.g., ferns and mosses) preceded the evolution of PHYA. Seed plant phytochromes translocate into the nucleus and regulate gene expression. By contrast, there has been little evidence of a nuclear localization and function of cryptogam phytochromes. Here, we identified responses to FR light in cryptogams, which are highly reminiscent of PHYA signaling in seed plants. In the moss Physcomitrella patens and the fern Adiantum capillus-veneris, phytochromes accumulate in the nucleus in response to light. Although P. patens phytochromes evolved independently of PHYA, we have found that one clade of P. patens phytochromes exhibits the molecular properties of PHYA. We suggest that HIR-like responses had evolved in the last common ancestor of modern seed plants and cryptogams and that HIR signaling is more ancient than PHYA. Thus, other phytochromes in seed plants may have lost the capacity to mediate HIRs during evolution, rather than that PHYA acquired it.