Abstract Background Saccharina japonica (Areschoug) Lane, Mayes, Druehl et Saunders is an economically important and highly morphologically variable brown alga inhabiting the northwest Pacific marine waters. On the basis of nuclear (ITS), plastid (rbcLS) and mitochondrial (COI) DNA sequence data, we have analyzed the genetic composition of typical Saccharina japonica (TYP) and its two common morphological varieties, known as the “longipes” (LON) and “shallow-water” (SHA) forms seeking to clarify their taxonomical status and to evaluate the possibility of cryptic species within S. japonica. Results The data show that the TYP and LON forms are very similar genetically in spite of drastic differences in morphology, life history traits, and ecological preferences. Both, however, are genetically quite different from the SHA form. The two Saccharina lineages are distinguished by 109 fixed single nucleotide differences as well as by seven fixed length polymorphisms (based on a 4,286 bp concatenated dataset that includes three gene regions). The GenBank database reveals a close affinity of the TYP and LON forms to S. japonica and the SHA form to S. cichorioides. The three gene markers used in the present work have different sensitivity for the algal species identification. COI gene was the most discriminant gene marker. However, we have detected instances of interspecific COI recombination reflecting putative historical hybridization events between distantly related algal lineages. The recombinant sequences show highly contrasted level of divergence in the 5’- and 3’- regions of the gene, leading to significantly different tree topologies depending on the gene segment (5’- or 3’-) used for tree reconstruction. Consequently, the 5’-COI “barcoding” region (~ 650 bp) can be misleading for identification purposes, at least in the case of algal species that might have experienced historical hybridization events. Conclusion Taking into account the potential roles of phenotypic plasticity in evolution, we conclude that the TYP and LON forms represent examples of algae phenotypic diversification that enables successful adaptation to contrasting shallow- and deep-water marine environments, while the SHA form is very similar to S. cichorioides and should be considered a different species. Practical applications for algal management and conservation are briefly considered.