There is an ongoing debate about the glacial history of non-arctic species in central and northern Europe. The two main hypotheses are: (1) postglacial colonization from refugia outside this region; (2) glacial survival in microclimatically favourable sites within the periglacial areas. In order to clarify the glacial history of a boreo-montane tall forb, we analysed AFLPs from populations of Cicerbita alpina through most of its range (Scandinavia, the mountains of central Europe, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Balkan Peninsula). We found a major differentiation between the Pyrenean population and all others, supported by principal coordinate, neighbour joining and STRUCTURE analyses. Furthermore, three populations from the central and north-eastern Alps were genetically distinct from the bulk of populations from Scandinavia, central Europe, the Alps and the Balkan Peninsula. Most populations, including those from central and northern Europe, had moderate to high levels of genetic diversity (mean Shannon index HSh = 0.292, mean percentage of polymorphic loci P = 54.1%, mean Nei's gene diversity H = 0.195). The results indicate separate glacial refugia in the Pyrenean region and the Italian Alps. Furthermore, they provide evidence of glacial persistence in cryptic refugia north of the Alps, from where Scandinavia and most of the Alps are likely to have been colonized following deglaciation. © 2010 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2010, 164, 142–154.