In wild and cultivated annual plant species, flowering time is an important life-history trait that coordinates the life cycle with local environmental conditions. Extensive studies on the genetic basis of flowering time in the model species Arabidopsis thaliana have revealed a complex genetic network that can detect environmental and internal signals. Based on this knowledge and on known pleiotropic effects associated with flowering time genes, we suggest that a natural shift towards an early-flowering life cycle might involve only particular functional regions in a limited number of genes. Our predictions are supported by genetic theories of adaptation and by recent data about genes associated with natural variation. We analyse the extent to which these predictions can also apply to crop species.