In the southern Iberian Peninsula, Rhododendron ponticum occurs in restricted and vulnerable populations as a Tertiary relict. Population structure and the main phases of the reproductive process were examined in order to shed light on recruitment patterns and limitations. Rhododendron ponticum flowers are self-compatible and attract a diverse array of insects, which are responsible for a considerable number of seeds set in the populations. Nevertheless, only adults form populations, whilst seedlings are scarce and saplings virtually absent (only two juveniles out of 2489 adults sampled). Non-specialized vegetative multiplication by layering was observed. Recruitment failure seems to depend on the scarcity of safe microsites, which are free from drought, for seedling establishment. The observations contrast with R. ponticum's reputation as an aggressive invader in temperate Atlantic areas. It is proposed that the species shows a variable balance between sexual reproduction and vegetative multiplication depending on environmental conditions. At present, only the latter seems to be prevailing in relict populations in the Iberian Peninsula. This flexible reproductive strategy is also discussed as a mechanism allowing persistence during geological climatic oscillations. © The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2002, 140, 297–311.