Light conditions provide important information about the best time and place for seedling establishment. Photoinhibition of seed germination (PISG), defined as the partial or complete suppression of germination under white light, has been interpreted as a physiological adaptation to avoid germination at or near the soil surface. This review is the first report of an all-inclusive, fully quantitative analysis of PISG in seed plants. Pertinent data available from the published literature for 301 taxa from 59 families and 27 orders were assessed. The association of PISG with several plant and seed traits allowed us to consider the adaptive significance of PISG in relation to plant life histories and the natural environments. As no gymnosperm has been found to be truly photoinhibited, it seems that PISG is apomorphic to flowering plants (especially monocots). Seeds of most taxa with PISG have a dark colour and intermediate mass, mostly in the range 1 to 27 mg. PISG is absent from humid tropical regions and from cold climates, but it is strongly associated with open, disturbed and dry habitats. An intriguing implication of PISG is the formation of a soil-surface seed bank. Taken together, these results clearly indicate that PISG is a physiological adaptation to avoid germination on the soil surface, where conditions are not suitable for seedling establishment. PISG is probably much more frequent in seed plants than previously thought. Thus, laboratory experiments should be conducted under well-characterized light and dark conditions.