© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Aim: To test the latitudinal gradient in plant species diversity for self-similarity across taxonomic scales and amongst taxa. Location: North America. Methods: We used species richness data from 245 local vascular plant floras to quantify the slope and shape of the latitudinal gradients in species diversity (LGSD) across all plant species as well as within each family and order. We calculated the contribution of each family and order to the empirical LGSD. Results: We observed the canonical LGSD when all plants were considered with floras at the lowest latitudes having, on average, 451 more species than floras at the highest latitudes. When considering slope alone, most orders and families showed the expected negative slope, but 31.7% of families and 27.7% of orders showed either no significant relationship between latitude and diversity or a reverse LGSD. Latitudinal patterns of family diversity account for at least 14% of this LGSD. Most orders and families did not show the negative slope and concave-down quadratic shape expected by the pattern for all plant species. A majority of families did not make a significant contribution in species to the LGSD with 53% of plant families contributing little to nothing to the overall gradient. Ten families accounted for more than 70% of the gradient. Two families, the Asteraceae and Fabaceae, contributed a third of the LGSD. Main Conclusions: The empirical LGSD we describe here is a consequence of a gradient in the number of families and diversification within relative few plant families. Macroecological studies typically aim to generate models that are general across taxa with the implicit assumption that the models are general within taxa. Our results strongly suggest that models of the latitudinal gradient in plant species richness that rely on environmental covariates (e.g. temperature, energy) are likely not general across plant taxa.