The Earth has experienced large changes in global and regional climates over the past one million years. Understanding processes and feedbacks that control those past environmental changes is of great interest for better understanding the nature, direction and magnitude of current climate change, its effect on life, and on the physical, biological and chemical processes and ecosystem services important for human well-being. Microfossils from terrestrial plants – pollen, microcharcoal and phytoliths – preserved in terrestrial and marine sedimentary archives are particularly useful tools to document changes in vegetation, fire and land climate. They are well-preserved in a variety of depositional environments and provide quantitative reconstructions of past land cover and climate. Those microfossil data are widely available from public archives, and their spatial coverage includes almost all regions on Earth, including both high and low latitudes and altitudes. Here, we (i) review the laboratory procedures used to extract those microfossils from sediment for microscopic observations and the qualitative and quantitative information they provide, (ii) highlight the importance of regional and global databases for large-scale syntheses of environmental changes, and (iii) review the application of terrestrial plant microfossil records in palaeoclimatology and palaeoecology using key examples from specific regions and past periods.