The responses of plants to their environment are often dependent on the spatiotemporal dynamics of transcriptional regulation. While live-imaging tools have been used extensively to quantitatively capture rapid transcriptional dynamics in living animal cells, the lack of implementation of these technologies in plants has limited concomitant quantitative studies in this kingdom. Here, we applied the PP7 and MS2 RNA-labelling technologies for the quantitative imaging of RNA polymerase II activity dynamics in single cells of living plants as they respond to experimental treatments. Using this technology, we counted nascent RNA transcripts in real time in Nicotiana benthamiana (tobacco) and Arabidopsis thaliana. Examination of heat shock reporters revealed that plant tissues respond to external signals by modulating the proportion of cells that switch from an undetectable basal state to a high-transcription state, instead of modulating the rate of transcription across all cells in a graded fashion. This switch-like behaviour, combined with cell-to-cell variability in transcription rate, results in mRNA production variability spanning three orders of magnitude. We determined that cellular heterogeneity stems mainly from stochasticity intrinsic to individual alleles instead of variability in cellular composition. Together, our results demonstrate that it is now possible to quantitatively study the dynamics of transcriptional programs in single cells of living plants.