The Quaternary has been described as an important time for genetic diversification and speciation. This is based on the premise that Quaternary climatic conditions fostered the isolation of populations and, in some instances, allopatric speciation. However, the ‘Quaternary Ice–Age speciation model’ rests on two key assumptions: (i) that biotic responses to climate change during the Quaternary were significantly different from those of other periods in Earth's history; and (ii) that the mechanisms of isolation during the Quaternary were sufficient in time and space for genetic diversification to foster speciation. These assumptions are addressed by examining the plant fossil record for the Quaternary (in detail) and for the past 410 Myr, which encompasses previous intervals of icehouse Earth. Our examination of the Quaternary record indicates that floristic responses to climate changes during the past 1.8 Myr were complex and that a distinction has to be made between those plants that were able to withstand the extremes of glacial conditions and those that could not. Generation times are also important as are different growth forms (e.g. herbaceous annuals and arborescent perennials), resulting in different responses in terms of genetic divergence rates during isolation. Because of these variations in the duration of isolation of populations and genomic diversification rates, no canonical statement about the predominant floristic response to climatic changes during the Quaternary (i.e. elevated rates of speciation or extinction, or stasis) is currently possible. This is especially true because of a sampling bias in terms of the fossil record of tree species over that of species with non–arborescent growth forms. Nevertheless, based on the available information, it appears that the dominant response of arborescent species during the Quaternary was extinction rather than speciation or stasis. By contrast, our examination of the fossil record of vascular plants for the past 410 Myr indicates that speciation rates often increased during long intervals of icehouse Earth (spanning up to 50 Myr). Therefore, longer periods of icehouse Earth than those occurring during the Quaternary may have isolated plant populations for sufficiently long periods of time to foster genomic diversification and allopatric speciation. Our results highlight the need for more detailed study of the fossil record in terms of finer temporal and spatial resolution than is currently available to examine the significance of intervals of icehouse Earth. It is equally clear that additional and detailed molecular studies of extant populations of Quaternary species are required in order to determine the extent to which these ‘relic’ species have genomically diversified across their current populations.