Plant growth and development are sustained by continuous cell division in the meristems, which is perturbed by various environmental stresses. For the maintenance of meristematic functions, it is essential that cell division be coordinated with cell differentiation. However, it is unknown how the proliferative activities of the meristems and the coordination between cell division and differentiation are maintained under stressful conditions. Here we show that a rice protein, RSS1, whose stability is controlled by cell cycle phases, contributes to the vigour of meristematic cells and viability under salinity conditions. These effects of RSS1 are exerted by regulating the G1–S transition, possibly through an interaction of RSS1 with protein phosphatase 1, and are mediated by the phytohormone, cytokinin. RSS1 is conserved widely in plant lineages, except eudicots, suggesting that RSS1-dependent mechanisms might have been adopted in specific lineages during the evolutionary radiation of angiosperms.