In the last decade a number of studies has illustrated quite different phylogeographical patterns amongst plants with a northern present-day geographical distribution, spanning the entire circumboreal region and/or circumarctic region and southern mountains. These works, employing several marker systems, have brought to light the complex evolutionary histories of this group. Here I focus on one circumboreal plant species, Chamaedaphne calyculata (leatherleaf), to unravel its phylogeographical history and patterns of genetic diversity across its geographical range. A survey of 29 populations with combined analyses of chloroplast DNA (cpDNA), internal transcribed spacer (ITS) and AFLP markers revealed structuring into two groups: Eurasian/north-western North American, and north-eastern North American. The present geographical distribution of C. calyculata has resulted from colonization from two putative refugial areas: east Beringia and south-eastern North America. The variation of chloroplast DNA (cpDNA) and ITS sequences strongly indicated that the evolutionary histories of the Eurasian/north-western North American and the north-eastern North American populations were independent of each other because of a geographical disjunction in the distribution area and ice-sheet history between north-eastern and north-western North America. Mismatch analysis using ITS confirmed that the present-day population structure is the result of rapid expansion, probably since the last glacial maximum. The AFLP data revealed low genetic diversity of C. calyculata (P = 19.5%, H = 0.085) over the whole geographical range, and there was no evidence of loss of genetic diversity within populations in the continuous range, either at the margins or in formerly glaciated and nonglaciated regions. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 761–775.