Coastal plants are ideal models for studying the colonization routes of species because of the simple linear distributions of these species. Carex extensa occurs mainly in salt marshes along the Mediterranean and European coasts. Variation in cpDNA sequences, amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLPs) and simple sequence repeats (SSRs) of 24 populations were analysed to reconstruct its colonization history. Phylogenetic relationships indicate that C. extensa together with the South American Carex vixdentata and the southern African Carex ecklonii form a monophyletic group of halophilic species. Analyses of divergence times suggest that early lineage diversification may have occurred between the late Miocene and the late Pliocene (Messinian crisis). Phylogenetic and network analyses of cpDNA variation revealed the monophyly of the species and an ancestral haplotype contained in populations of the eastern Mediterranean. The AFLP and SSR analyses support a pattern of variation compatible with these two lineages. These analyses also show higher levels of genetic diversity and differentiation in the eastern population group, which underwent an east-to-west Mediterranean colonization. Quaternary climatic oscillations appear to have been responsible for the split between these two lineages. Secondary contacts may have taken place in areas near the Ligurian Sea in agreement with the gene flow detected in Corsican populations. The AFLP and SSR data accord with the ‘tabula rasa’ hypothesis in which a recent and rapid colonization of northern Europe took place from the western Mediterranean after the Last Glacial Maximum. The unbalanced west-east vs. west-north colonization may be as a result of ‘high density blocking’ effect.