1. Here we present an introduction to this issue’s Special Feature arising from the British Ecological Society Symposium: Facilitation in Plant Communities (20–22 April 2009).
2. Papers in the Special Feature demonstrate the benefits that arise from cross-system application of general concepts, for example, the well-known stress gradient hypothesis. Such comparisons challenge our definition of facilitation, as well as our pre-conceptions on the nature of intermediary organisms.
3. We suggest that under some circumstances a clear definition of the two-way nature of interactions is essential, e.g. when considering the evolutionary implications of facilitation. In other cases, however, we can perhaps be more relaxed, e.g. when facilitation is a component of conservation ecology.
4.Synthesis. Overall we believe that establishing facilitation as an independent concept has driven substantial progress towards a clearer understanding of how ecological systems work. Through the links established by work such as that presented in this Special Feature, we believe this field will continue to make rapid progress and aid ecological understanding in general.