• divergence times;
  • Lomariopsidaceae;
  • molecular phylogenetics;
  • Nephrolepidaceae;
  • sorus evolution

The phylogenetic relationships and biogeographical history of the tropical genus Nephrolepis, a popular ornamental fern, are investigated using plastid DNA data from three regions: rbcL, rps4 plus the rps4-trnS intergenic spacer (IGS) and the trnG intron plus the trnG-trnR IGS. Our taxon sampling includes all but one of the 19 species of the genus. We confirm the monophyly of Nephrolepis, resolve infrageneric relationships and propose monophyly of the widespread species Nephrolepis biserrata and Nephrolepis abrupta, awaiting a denser sampling of Nephrolepis cordifolia and Nephrolepis undulata. The controversial inclusion of Nephrolepis in Lomariopsidaceae is not clearly supported. With a view to identifying synapomorphies for the clades retrieved, we reconstruct the evolution in Nephrolepis of sorus position and indusium shape. Finally, based on an estimation of divergence times and reconstruction of ancestral distributions for the genus, we propose an origin of the crown group in the Eocene in the forests of the Laurasian tropical belt, from where two main lineages would have dispersed and become isolated, one in the Neotropics and the other in Asia–Australasia. From this clear biogeographical pattern, some species, probably of Asian–Australasian origin, show recent range expansions, now spanning the Palaeotropics or the pantropical zone. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 164, 113–127.