Plant parasitism has arisen time and again in multiple phyla, including bacteria, fungi, insects and nematodes. In most of these organismal groups, the overwhelming diversity hampers a robust reconstruction of the origins and diversification patterns of this trophic lifestyle. Being a moderately diversified phylum with ≈ 4,100 plant parasites (15% of total biodiversity) subdivided over four independent lineages, nematodes constitute a major organismal group for which the genesis of plant parasitism could be mapped. Since substantial crop losses worldwide have been attributed to less than 1% of these plant parasites, research efforts are severely biased towards this minority. With the first molecular characterisation of numerous basal and supposedly harmless plant parasites as well as their non-parasitic relatives, we were able to generate a comprehensive molecular framework that allows for the reconstruction of trophic diversification for a complete phylum. In each lineage plant parasites reside in a single taxonomic grouping (family or order), and by taking the coverage of the next lower taxonomic level as a measure for representation, 50, 67, 100 and 85% of the known diversity was included. We revealed distinct gain and loss patterns with regard to plant parasitism per se as well as host exploitation strategies between these lineages. Our map of parasitic nematode biodiversity also revealed an unanticipated time reversal in which the two most ancient lineages showed the lowest level of ecological diversification and vice versa.