The evolutionary success of polyploidy most directly requires the ability of polyploid individuals to reproduce and transmit their genes to subsequent generations. As a result, the sexual system (i.e. the mating system and the sex allocation of a species) will necessarily play a key role in determining the fate of a new polyploid lineage. The effects of the sexual system on the evolution of polyploidy are complex and interactive. They include both aspects of the genetic system, the genetic load maintained in a population and the ecological context in which selection takes place. Here, we explore these complexities and review the empirical evidence for several potentially important genetic and ecological interactions between ploidy and the sexual system in plants. We place particular emphasis on work in our laboratory on the European annual plant Mercurialis annua, which offers promising scope for detailed investigations on this topic. M. annua forms a polyploid complex that varies in its sexual system from dioecy (separate sexes) through androdioecy (males and hermaphrodites) to functional hermaphroditism. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 82, 547–560.