Theory suggests that the evolution of autotetraploids within diploid populations will be opposed by a minority-cytotype mating disadvantage. The role of triploids in promoting autotetraploid establishment is rarely considered, yet triploids are often found in natural populations and are formed in experimental crosses. Here, I evaluate the effects of triploids on autotetraploid evolution using computer simulations and by synthesizing research on the evolutionary dynamics of mixed-ploidy populations in Chamerion angustifolium (Onagraceae). Simulations show that the fate of a tetraploid in a diploid population varies qualitatively depending on the relative fitness of triploids, the ploidy of their gametes and the fitness of diploids relative to tetraploids. In general, even partially fit triploids can increase the likelihood of diploid–tetraploid coexistence and, in some cases, facilitate tetraploid fixation. Within the diploid–tetraploid contact zone of C. angustifolium, mixed populations are common (43%), and often (39%) contain triploids. Greenhouse and field studies indicate that triploid fitness is low (9% of diploids) but variable. Furthermore, euploid gametes produced by triploids can be x, 2x or 3x and contribute the majority (62%) of new polyploids formed in each generation (2.3 × 10−3). Although triploid bridge, alone, may not account for the evolution of autotetraploidy in C. angustifolium, it probably contributes to the prevalence of mixed-ploidy populations in this species. Therefore, in contrast to hybrids in homoploid species, triploids may actually facilitate rather than diminish the fixation of tetraploids by enhancing the rate of formation. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 82, 537–546.