The shoot apical meristem (SAM) orchestrates the balance between stem cell proliferation and organ initiation essential for postembryonic shoot growth. Meristems show a striking diversity in shape and size. How this morphological diversity relates to variation in plant architecture and the molecular circuitries driving it are unclear. By generating a high-resolution gene expression atlas of the vegetative maize shoot apex, we show here that distinct sets of genes govern the regulation and identity of stem cells in maize versus Arabidopsis. Cell identities in the maize SAM reflect the combinatorial activity of transcription factors (TFs) that drive the preferential, differential expression of individual members within gene families functioning in a plethora of cellular processes. Subfunctionalization thus emerges as a fundamental feature underlying cell identity. Moreover, we show that adult plant characters are, to a significant degree, regulated by gene circuitries acting in the SAM, with natural variation modulating agronomically important architectural traits enriched specifically near dynamically expressed SAM genes and the TFs that regulate them. Besides unique mechanisms of maize stem cell regulation, our atlas thus identifies key new targets for crop improvement.