The molecular phylogeny of African violets (Saintpaulia H. Wendl.), based on ribosomal DNA internal transcribed spacer (ITS) sequences, follows the disjunct biogeography of the genus. Sequence analysis by parsimony of 19 accessions, representing 17 currently recognized Saintpaulia species, resulted in four trees of 182 steps. The first major division is between S. goetzeana, from the Uluguru Mts, Tanzania, and the rest of the genus. The basal position of S. goetzeana, and its putative primitive characters, may indicate an Uluguru origin for Saintpaulia and subsequent colonization of the more northerly mountains. Of the remainder, S. teitensis, from the Teita Hills of Kenya, is sister taxon to the other species (which occur mainly in the Usambara Mts of north-east Tanzania). A group of nine Usambaran species that we call the 'ionantha complex' show minimal ITS genetic differentiation and are also taxonomically critical. Species diversity in the Usambara Mts appears to be the result of rapid, recent (possibly Pleistocene) radiation. This study reveals the limitations of ITS sequences for elucidating the radiation of poorly differentiated species (the ionantha complex). However, the molecular data strongly suggest that conservation of the Uluguru and Teita populations is essential for the protection of the full range of diversity within the genus.