A phylogenetic analysis of combined morphological, chemical and ITS/5.8S sequence data reveals that species of Ateleia are often more genetically than morphologically divergent, and that species thought to be most closely related morphologically are distant relatives within the genus. Ateleia shows niche conservatism, with most species confined to seasonally dry tropical forest in Central America and the Caribbean, and fewer species in the same biome in South America. Four independent transitions to wet forests may have occurred in the genus. The estimated ages of Ateleia lineages spanning Central and South America are either older or younger than the estimated age of closure of the Isthmus of Panama. The older dates clearly suggest that over-water dispersal is responsible for the distribution of Ateleia that includes the Caribbean Islands. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 162, 39–53.