The high potential fitness benefit of phenotypic plasticity tempts us to expect phenotypic plasticity as a frequent adaptation to environmental heterogeneity. Examples of proven adaptive plasticity in plants, however, are scarce and most plastic responses actually may be ‘passive’ rather than adaptive. This suggests that frequently requirements for the evolution of adaptive plasticity are not met or that such evolution is impeded by constraints. Here we outline requirements and potential constraints for the evolution of adaptive phenotypic plasticity, identify open questions, and propose new research approaches. Important open questions concern the genetic background of plasticity, genetic variation in plasticity, selection for plasticity in natural habitats, and the nature and occurrence of costs and limits of plasticity. Especially promising tools to address these questions are selection gradient analysis, meta-analysis of studies on genotype-by-environment interactions, QTL analysis, cDNA-microarray scanning and quantitative PCR to quantify gene expression, and two-dimensional gel electrophoresis to quantify protein expression. Studying plasticity along the pathway from gene expression to the phenotype and its relationship with fitness will help us to better understand why adaptive plasticity is not more universal, and to more realistically predict the evolution of plastic responses to environmental change.