Plastid microsatellite loci developed for Cephalanthera longifolia were used to examine the level of genetic variation within and between populations of the three widespread Cephalanthera species (C. damasonium, C. longifolia and C. rubra). The most detailed sampling was in C. longifolia (42 localities from Ireland to China; 147 individuals). Eight haplotypes were detected. One was detected in the vast majority of individuals and occurred from Ireland to Iran. Three others were only found in Europe (Ireland to Italy, England to Italy and Austria to Croatia). Two were only found in the Middle East and two only in Asia. In C. damasonium, 21 individuals from 10 populations (England to Turkey) were sampled. Only one haplotype was detected. In C. rubra, 34 individuals from eight populations (England to Turkey) were sampled. Although it was not possible to amplify all loci for all samples of this species, nine haplotypes were detected. Short alleles for the trnS-trnG region found in two populations of C. rubra were characterized by sequencing and were caused by deletions of 26 and 30 base pairs. At this level of sampling, it appears that C. rubra shows the greatest genetic variability. Cephalanthera longifolia, C. rubra and C. damasonium have previously been characterized as outbreeding, outbreeding with facultative vegetative reproduction and inbreeding, respectively. Patterns of genetic variation here are discussed in the light of these reproductive system differences. The primers used in these three species of Cephalanthera were also demonstrated to amplify these loci in another five species (C. austiniae, C. calcarata, C. epipactoides, C. falcata and C. yunnanensis). Although it is sometimes treated as a synonym of C. damasonium, the single sample of C. yunnanensis from China had a markedly different haplotype from that found in C. damasonium. All three loci were successfully amplified in two achlorophyllous, myco-heterotrophic species, C. austinae and C. calcarata. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 163, 181–193.