Epidendrum is one of the largest Neotropical genera of Orchidaceae and comprises approximately 1500 species. Only 2.8% of these species have been studied cytologically, demonstrating chromosome numbers ranging from n = 12 in E. fulgens to n = 120 in E. cinnabarinum. The present work evaluated the evolution of the karyotypes of Epidendrum spp. based on data gathered from the literature and from analyses of the karyotypes of 16 Brazilian species (nine previously unpublished). The appearance of one karyotype with n = 12 with one larger chromosome pair in subgenus Amphiglottium appears to have occurred at the beginning of the divergence of this lineage, and x = 12 probably represents the basic number of this subgenus. Epidendrum secundum exhibits wide variation in chromosome numbers, with ten different cytotypes found in 22 Brazilian populations, seven of which were new counts: 2n = 30, 42, 50, 54, 56, 58 and 84. Most lineages of Epidendrum seem to have been secondarily derived from one ancestral stock with x = 20, as is seen in the majority of the present-day representatives of the genus. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 172, 329–344.