MADS-domain transcription factors have been shown to act as key repressors or activators of the transition to flowering and as master regulators of reproductive organ identities. Despite their important roles in plant development, the origin of several MADS-box subfamilies has remained enigmatic so far. Here we demonstrate, through a combination of genome synteny and phylogenetic reconstructions, the origin of three major, apparently angiosperm-specific MADS-box gene clades: FLOWERING LOCUS C- (FLC-), SQUAMOSA- (SQUA-) and SEPALLATA- (SEP-)-like genes. We find that these lineages derive from a single ancestral tandem duplication in a common ancestor of extant seed plants. Contrary to common belief, we show that FLC-like genes are present in cereals where they can also act as floral repressors responsive to prolonged cold or vernalization. This opens a new perspective on the translation of findings from Arabidopsis to cereal crops, in which vernalization was originally described.