The sessile nature of plants has resulted in the evolution of an extraordinarily diverse suite of protective mechanisms against biotic and abiotic stresses. Though volatile isoprenoids are known to be involved in many types of biotic interactions, they also play important but relatively unappreciated roles in abiotic stress responses. We review those roles, discuss the proposed mechanistic explanations and examine the evolutionary significance of volatile isoprenoid emission. We note that abiotic stress responses generically involve production of reactive oxygen species in plant cells, and volatile isoprenoids mitigate the effects of oxidative stress by mediating the oxidative status of the plant. On the basis of these observations, we propose a 'single biochemical mechanism for multiple physiological stressors' model, whereby the protective effect against abiotic stress is exerted through direct or indirect improvement in resistance to damage by reactive oxygen species.