Long-term global warming during the early Paleogene was punctuated by several short-term ‘hyperthermal’ events, the most pronounced being the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During this long-term warming, tropical climates expanded into extra-tropical areas, creating a widespread band of thermophilic flora that reached into the paratropics, possibly as far north as mid-latitude North America in some regions. Relatively little is known about these paratropical floras, despite distribution across the North American Gulf Coastal Plain. We assess floras from the Gulf Coastal Plain in Central Texas before and after the Paleocene–Eocene boundary to define plant ecosystem changes associated with rapid global warming in this region. After the Paleocene–Eocene boundary, these floras suggest uniform plant communities across the Gulf Coastal Plain, but with high turnover rate and changes in community composition. Paleoecology and paleoclimate assessments from Central Texas Paleocene and Eocene floras suggest a warm and wet environment, indicative of tropical seasonal forest to tropical rainforest biomes. Fossil evidence from the Gulf Coastal Plain combined with the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming data suggest that early Paleogene warming helped create a paratropical belt that extended into mid-latitudes. Evaluating the response of fossil plant communities to rapid global warming has important implications for understanding and preparing for current global warming and climate change.