At a regional scale, the high species numbers (gamma diversity) of tropical forests have been explained by either a gradual accumulation of species through time (museum hypothesis) or, by contrast, rapid recent speciation in large genera. However, the origins of local rain forest diversity (alpha diversity) have been given little attention. Cyrtandra (Gesneriaceae), an understorey genus in the highly species-rich Indo-Malayan rain forest, has considerable capacity for producing local endemics, making it particularly suitable for studying diversity on a local scale. We sampled Cyrtandra species from one community on Mount Kerinci, Sumatra, and phylogenetic analyses of ITS sequences suggest that this community is an assembly of three distinct phyletic lineages: (1) a group of herbaceous or subshrub plants of Bornean affinity, (2) one member of a group of widespread shrubs forming Cyrtandra section Dissimiles and (3) a second group of shrubs. The evolutionary origin of this community is therefore not a result of rapid and recent speciation: it is assembled from species resulting from a gradual accumulation of diversity through time (museum hypothesis), although one lineage shows evidence of more recent, continuing speciation than the other two. The community includes two distantly related, apparently endemic species, but there is no evidence for a local adaptive radiation. The protection of representative species from each lineage would allow the conservation of genetic diversity. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 81, 49–62.