Theory and experience in metabolic engineering both show that metabolism operates at the network level. In plants, this complexity is compounded by a high degree of compartmentation and the synthesis of a very wide array of secondary metabolic products. A further challenge to understanding and predicting plant metabolic function is posed by our ignorance about the structure of metabolic networks even in well-studied systems. Metabolic flux analysis (MFA) provides tools to measure and model the functioning of metabolism, and is making significant contributions to coping with their complexity. This review gives an overview of different MFA approaches, the measurements required to implement them and the information they yield. The application of MFA methods to plant systems is then illustrated by several examples from the recent literature. Next, the challenges that plant metabolism poses for MFA are discussed together with ways that these can be addressed. Lastly, new developments in MFA are described that can be expected to improve the range and reliability of plant MFA in the coming years.