Understanding the way in which plants develop, grow and interact with their environment requires tools capable of a high degree of both spatial and temporal resolution. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technique which is able to visualize internal structures and metabolites, has the great virtue that it is non-invasive and therefore has the potential to monitor physiological processes occurring in vivo. The major aim of this review is to attract plant biologists to MRI by explaining its advantages and wide range of possible applications for solving outstanding issues in plant science. We discuss the challenges and opportunities of MRI in the study of plant physiology and development, plant–environment interactions, biodiversity, gene functions and metabolism. Overall, it is our view that the potential benefit of harnessing MRI for plant research purposes is hard to overrate.