Although New Zealand is a biodiversity hotspot, there has been little genetic investigation of why so many of its threatened and uncommon plants have naturally disjunct distributions. We investigated the small tree Pseudopanax ferox (Araliaceae), which has a widespread but highly disjunct lowland distribution within New Zealand. Genotyping of nuclear microsatellites and a chloroplast locus revealed pronounced genetic differentiation and four principal genetic clusters. Our results indicate that the disjunct distribution is a product of vicariance rather than long-distance dispersal. This highlights the need to preserve multiple populations when disjunct distributions are the result of vicariance, rather than focusing conservation efforts on a core area, in order to retain as much as possible of a species’ evolutionary legacy and potential. Additionally, based on our genetic findings and the ecology of P. ferox, we hypothesize that it was more continuously distributed during the drier (but not maximally colder) interstadials of glacial periods and/or on the fertile soils available immediately postglacial. We further hypothesize that P. ferox belongs to a suite of species of drought-prone and/or fertile habitats whose distributions are actually restricted during warmer and wetter interglacial periods, despite being principally of the lowlands. Our genetic data for P. ferox are also the first consistent with the survival during the Last Glacial Maxima of a lowland tree at high latitudes in the south-eastern South Island.