Plant somatic cells can be reprogrammed into totipotent embryonic cells that are able to form differentiated embryos in a process called somatic embryogenesis (SE), by hormone treatment or through overexpression of certain transcription factor genes, such as BABY BOOM (BBM). Here we show that overexpression of the AT-HOOK MOTIF CONTAINING NUCLEAR LOCALIZED 15 (AHL15) gene induces formation of somatic embryos on Arabidopsis thaliana seedlings in the absence of hormone treatment. During zygotic embryogenesis, AHL15 expression starts early in embryo development, and AH15 and other AHL genes are required for proper embryo patterning and development beyond the globular stage. Moreover, AHL15 and several of its homologs are upregulated and required for SE induction upon hormone treatment, and they are required for efficient BBM-induced SE as downstream targets of BBM. A significant number of plants derived from AHL15 overexpression-induced somatic embryos are polyploid. Polyploidisation occurs by endomitosis specifically during the initiation of SE, and is caused by strong heterochromatin decondensation induced by AHL15 overexpression.