The word ‘senescence’ is recorded as having been around in the English language since before 1700, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that it began to be used in biology. Charles Sedgwick Minot (1891) was an early adopter, eventually publishing his 1908 book The Problem of Age, Growth, and Death. A Study of Cytomorphosis, in which he defined senescence thus: ‘With each successive generation of cells the power of growth diminishes … This loss of power I term senescence’. This broadly remains the meaning of the term as used by population biologists to this day. Senescence in the sense of the terminal phase in the development of cells, tissues and organs was not adopted by plant physiologists until later. A landmark in the history of studies of senescence in plant growth and development was Die Lebensdauer von Pflanzen, the classic work published in 1929 by Hans Molisch. Now senescence research embraces the full scope of plant and environmental science, from the molecular to the global. In the last decade > 800 papers, published in New Phytologist, have referred directly, or indirectly, to senescence. The papers in this Virtual Issue have been selected to celebrate the range of activity across this fertile field of enquiry.