Several methods based on population biology, biogeography, ecology, and genetics have been traditionally used for the identification of units for conservation below the species level. We use a combination of two methods based on population genetic structure estimators and on probabilities of loss of rare alleles to identify the Relevant Genetic Units for Conservation (RGUCs). The aims were to assess the genetic diversity and population structure of the endemic steppe plant Boleum asperum (Brassicaceae), and to determine how many and which populations significantly represent the total genetic diversity and the rarest allelic variation. Despite the high amplified fragment length polymorphism genetic diversity values detected in B. asperum (hT = 0.744), caused probably by its hexaploidy and allogamy, moderate spatial genetic differentiation was detected among populations (< 20%) and geographical ranges (> 13%), suggesting the existence of an ancestral continuous distribution range that was fragmented into separate ‘islands’ in more recent historical times. Five RGUCs, accounting for the 85.10% of the total genetic variation and representative of the entire geographical distribution of the species, were selected for in situ conservation. Ex situ conservation is proposed to complement the preservation of B. asperum. This method of objective selection of populations may be applied to other candidate taxa for conservation with prior adjustment of the threshold values of diversity required for effective protection of each particular species. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 94, 341–354.