Species with physically dormant (PY) seeds make up over 25% of plant species in a number of ecologically important ecosystems around the globe, such as savannah and Mediterranean shrublands. Many of these ecosystems are subject to temporally stochastic events, such as fire and drought; but are in areas projected to experience some of the most extreme climatic changes in the future. Given the importance of PY in controlling germination timing for successful recruitment, we ask how plastic the PY trait is, and if changes to the maternal environment from climate change could alter recruitment. This review focuses on: (1) the evidence for inter- and intraspecific variation in PY; (2) the genetic, maternal and environmental controls involved; and (3) the ecological consequences of (1) and (2) above. Evidence for (within-community) interspecific variation in conditions required to break PY is strong, but for intraspecific variation evidence is contradictory and limited by a paucity of studies. Identifying controllers of variation in PY is complex, there is some suggestion that conditions of the maternal environment may be important, but no consensus on the nature of effects. The implications of PY plasticity for the persistence of seed banks, species and communities under climate change are discussed. We highlight a number of key knowledge gaps, such as a lack of research estimating the components of variation in non-agricultural species, and identify a suite of seed attributes relevant to understanding the potential impacts of climate change on the population dynamics of PY species in the future.