We investigated the genetic structure of Eryngium alpinum (Apiaceae) in an Alpine valley where the plant occurs in patches of various sizes. In a conservation perspective, our goal was to determine whether the valley consists of one or several genetic units. Habitat fragmentation and previous observations of restricted pollen/seed dispersal suggested pronounced genetic structure, but gene dispersal often follows a leptokurtic distribution, which may lead to weak genetic structure. We used nine microsatellite loci and two nested sampling designs (50 × 50 m grid throughout the valley and 2 × 2 m grid in two 50 × 10 m quadrats). Within the overall valley, F-statistics and Bayesian approaches indicated high genetic homogeneity. This result might be explained by: (1) underestimation of long-distance pollen/seed dispersal by in situ experiments and (2) too recent fragmentation events to build up genetic structure. Spatial autocorrelation revealed isolation by distance on the overall valley but this pattern was much more pronounced in the 50 × 10 m quadrats sampled with a 2-m mesh. This was probably associated with limited primary seed dispersal, leading to the spatial clustering of half-sibs around maternal plants. We emphasize the interest of nested sampling designs and of combining several statistical tools. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 93, 667–677.