The closely related dioecious herbs Silene latifolia and Silene dioica are widespread and predominantly sympatric in Europe. The species are interfertile, but morphologically and ecologically distinct. A study of large-scale patterns of plastid DNA (polymerase chain reaction-restriction fragment length polymorphism) haplotypes in a sample of 198 populations from most of the European ranges of both species revealed extensive interspecific haplotype sharing. Four of the 28 detected haplotypes were frequent (found in > 40 populations) and widespread. Three of these frequent haplotypes occurred in both species and the geographic distribution of each haplotype was broadly congruent in both species. Each of these three, shared and widespread haplotypes is likely to have colonized central and/or northern Europe after the last glaciation from one or more of refugial areas in southern Europe. Interspecific hybridization and plastid introgression within refugial regions and/or during the early stages of postglacial expansion is the most plausible explanation for the broadly similar distribution patterns of the shared, frequent chloroplast haplotypes in the two species. The fourth frequent, widespread haplotype was absent from S. latifolia and almost entirely restricted to Nordic S. dioica. It is most likely that this haplotype spread into the Nordic countries from a central or northern European source or from a refugial area in Russia. (c) 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 161, 153-170.