Most temperate plants tolerate both chilling and freezing temperatures whereas many species from tropical regions suffer chilling injury when exposed to temperatures slightly above freezing. Cold acclimation induces the expression of cold-regulated genes needed to protect plants against freezing stress. This induction is mediated, in part, by the CBF transcription factor family. To understand the evolution and function of this family in cereals, we identified and characterized 15 different CBF genes from hexaploid wheat. Our analyses reveal that wheat species, T. aestivum and T. monococcum, may contain up to 25 different CBF genes, and that Poaceae CBFs can be classified into 10 groups that share a common phylogenetic origin and similar structural characteristics. Six of these groups (IIIc, IIId, IVa, IVb, IVc and IVd) are found only in the Pooideae suggesting they represent the CBF response machinery that evolved recently during colonization of temperate habitats. Expression studies reveal that five of the Pooideae-specific groups display higher constitutive and low temperature inducible expression in the winter cultivar, and a diurnal regulation pattern during growth at warm temperature. The higher constitutive and inducible expression within these CBF groups is an inherited trait that may play a predominant role in the superior low temperature tolerance capacity of winter cultivars and possibly be a basis of genetic variability in freezing tolerance within the Pooideae subfamily. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00438-006-0206-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.