Particularly in the temperate climate zone many forests have, at some moment in their history, been used as agriculture land. Forest cover is therefore often not as stable as it might look. How forest plant communities recovered after agriculture was abandoned allows us to explore some universal questions on how dispersal and environment limit plant species abundance and distribution. All studies looking at the effects of historical land use rely on adequate land use reconstruction. A variety of tools from maps, archival studies, and interviews to field evidence and soil analyses contribute to that. They allow us to distinguish ancient from recent forests and many studies found pronounced differences in forest plant species composition between them. A considerable percentage of our forest flora is associated with ancient forests. These ancient forest plant species (AFS) all have a low colonization capacity, suggesting that dispersal in space (distance related) and time (seed bank related) limit their distribution and abundance. However recent forests generally are suitable for the recruitment of AFS. There is clear evidence that dispersal limitation is more important than recruitment limitation in the distribution of AFS. Dispersal in time, through persistent seed banks, does not play a significant role. Ancient forests are not necessary more species-rich than recent forest, but if diversity is limited to typical forest plant species then ancient forests do have the highest number of plant species, making them highly important for nature conservation. The use of molecular markers, integrated approaches and modelling are all part of the way forward in this field of historical ecology.