Phylogenetic niche conservatism (PNC) is the tendency of lineages to retain their niche-related traits through speciation events. A recent surge in the availability of well-sampled molecular phylogenies has stimulated phylogenetic approaches to understanding ecological processes at large geographical scales and through macroevolutionary time. We stress that PNC is a pattern, not a process, and is found only in some traits and some lineages. At the simplest level, a pattern of PNC is an inevitable consequence of evolution - descent with modification and divergence of lineages - but several intrinsic causes, including physicochemical, developmental and genetic constraints, can lead directly to a marked pattern of PNC. A pattern of PNC can also be caused indirectly, as a by-product of other causes, such as extinction, dispersal limitation, competition and predation. Recognition of patterns of PNC can contribute to understanding macroevolutionary processes: for example, release from constraint in traits has been hypothesized to trigger adaptive radiations such as that of the angiosperms. Given the multiple causes of patterns of PNC, tests should address explicit questions about hypothesized processes. We conclude that PNC is a scientifically useful concept with applications to the practice of ecological research. © 2012 The Authors. New Phytologist © 2012 New Phytologist Trust.