Nucleotide sequence variation in the ITS1–5.8S–ITS2 region of nuclear ribosomal DNA (nrDNA) from 70 populations of Mielichhoferia elongata and M. mielichhoferiana, plus two outgroup species, was analysed using maximum parsimony and maximum likelihood methods. High levels of nucleotide substitution and numerous insertion–deletion events were detected within and between the two species. M. elongata is monophyletic with regard to nrDNA variation, but M. mielichhoferiana is paraphyletic. (M. elongata is nested within it.) A clade within M. mielichhoferiana provides evidence of vicariance, with North American and Scandinavian sister groups of populations. Two major clades are resolved in M. elongata by sequence data that are completely congruent with previous isozyme work. One clade includes populations from both North America and Europe whereas the other is strictly North American. These two clades, resolved by multiple independent loci, clearly represent cryptic species within the morphologically uniform M. elongata. Certain geographical areas, most notably southwestern Colorado in Ouray and San Juan Counties, harbour diverse populations of M. elongata with distinct phylogenetic and phylogeographical histories. Morphologically indistinguishable but phylogenetically distant populations were detected a few metres apart at one site. In contrast, all populations collected over hundreds of kilometres in California belong to a single clade. Arctic North American populations belong to a clade that includes disjunct populations in Alaska, northern Ellesmere Island, and the northeastern USA, but not subarctic Swedish populations, which are more closely related to plants from the Rocky Mountains. Morphological uniformity belies complex infraspecific phylogenetic patterns within M. elongata and M. mielichhoferiana.