Aquatic plants fulfil a wide range of ecological roles, and make a substantial contribution to the structure, function and service provision of aquatic ecosystems. Given their well-documented importance in aquatic ecosystems, research into aquatic plants continues to blossom. The 14th International Symposium on Aquatic Plants, held in Edinburgh in September 2015, brought together 120 delegates from 28 countries and six continents. This special issue of Hydrobiologia includes a select number of papers on aspects of aquatic plants, covering a wide range of species, systems and issues. In this paper, we present an overview of current trends and future directions in aquatic plant research in the early twenty first century. Our understanding of aquatic plant biology, the range of scientific issues being addressed and the range of techniques available to researchers have all arguably never been greater; however, substantial challenges exist to the conservation and management of both aquatic plants and the ecosystems in which they are found. The range of countries and continents represented by conference delegates and authors of papers in the special issue illustrates the global relevance of aquatic plant research in the early twenty first century but also the many challenges that this burgeoning scientific discipline must address.