The anthraquinone emodin, identified in 17 plant families distributed worldwide, has numerous biological activities, some of which exhibit a wide spectrum of ecological impacts by mediating biotic or abiotic interactions of plants with their environment. Here the evidence for direct and indirect effects of emodin on plant survival and reproduction is reviewed. Emodin in vegetative organs may help protect plants against herbivores, pathogens, competitors and extrinsic abiotic factors (e.g. high light intensities). In unripe fruit pulp, emodin may facilitate seed dispersal by protecting the immature fruit against predispersal seed predation whereas in ripe pulp it may deter frugivores and thus reduce the chances that seeds will be defecated beneath the parent plant. It also accelerates the passage of seeds through the digestive tract, potentially reducing dispersal distance and increasing seed viability upon dispersal. In certain circumstances both of the last two effects could also have negative fitness consequences for plants. Natural selection should favor secondary metabolites with multiple functions because they protect the plants against a variety of unpredictable biotic and abiotic environments. Such metabolites also enhance plant defenses by using different molecular targets of specific enemies through a variety of mechanisms of action. Emodin illustrates the wide and often overlooked potential for chemical multifunctionality in plant secondary metabolites.