Background Quiescence is a fundamental feature of plant life, which enables plasticity, renewal and fidelity of the somatic cell line. Cellular quiescence is defined by arrest in a particular phase of the cell cycle, typically G1 or G2; however, the regulation of quiescence and proliferation can also be considered across wider scales in space and time. As such, quiescence is a defining feature of plant development and phenology, from meristematic stem cell progenitors to terminally differentiated cells, as well as dormant or suppressed seeds and buds. While the physiology of each of these states differs considerably, each is referred to as 'cell cycle arrest' or 'G1 arrest'. Scope Here the physiology and molecular regulation of (1) meristematic quiescence, (2) dormancy and (3) terminal differentiation (cell cycle exit) are considered in order to determine whether and how the molecular decisions guiding these nuclear states are distinct. A brief overview of the canonical cell cycle regulators is provided, and the genetic and genomic, as well as physiological, evidence is considered regarding two primary questions: (1) Are the canonical cell cycle regulators superior or subordinate in the regulation of quiescence? (2) Are these three modes of quiescence governed by distinct molecular controls? Conclusion Meristematic quiescence, dormancy and terminal differentiation are each predominantly characterized by G1 arrest but regulated distinctly, at a level largely superior to the canonical cell cycle. Meristematic quiescence is intrinsically linked to non-cell-autonomous regulation of meristem cell identity, and particularly through the influence of ubiquitin-dependent proteolysis, in partnership with reactive oxygen species, abscisic acid and auxin. The regulation of terminal differentiation shares analogous features with meristematic quiescence, albeit with specific activators and a greater role for cytokinin signalling. Dormancy meanwhile appears to be regulated at the level of chromatin accessibility, by Polycomb group-type histone modifications of particular dormancy genes.