Little is known about past vegetation dynamics in Eastern Tropical South America (ETSA). Here we describe patterns of chloroplast (cp) DNA variation in Plathymenia reticulata, a widespread tree in the ETSA Atlantic Forest and Cerrado biomes, but not found in the xeromorphic Caatinga. Forty one populations, comprising 220 individuals, were analysed by sequencing the trnS-trnG and trnL-trnL-trnF cpDNA regions. Combined, they resulted in 18 geographically structured haplotypes. The central region of the sampling area, comprising Minas Gerais and Goiás Brazilian states, is a centre of genetic diversity and probably the most longstanding area of the distribution range of the species. In contrast, populations from northeastern Brazil and the southern Cerrados showed very low diversity levels, almost exclusively with common haplotypes which are also found in the central region. Coupled with a long-branched star-like network, these patterns suggest a recent range expansion of P. reticulata to those regions from central region sources. The recent origin of the species (in the early Pleistocene) or the extinction of some populations due to drier and cooler climate during the last glacial maximum could have been responsible for that phylogeographic pattern. The populations from northeastern Brazil originated from two colonization routes, one eastern (Atlantic) and one western (inland). Due to its high diversity and complex landscape, the central region, especially central-north Minas Gerais (between 15°–18° S and 42°–46° W), should be given the highest priority for conservation.