Abstract Background Cultivation of medicinal plants is not only a means for meeting current and future demands for large volume production of plant-based drug and herbal remedies, but also a means of relieving harvest pressure on wild populations. Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi (Huang-qin or Chinese skullcap) is a very important medicinal plant in China. Over the past several decades, wild resource of this species has suffered rapid declines and large-scale cultivation was initiated to meet the increasing demand for its root. However, the genetic impacts of recent cultivation on S. baicalensis have never been evaluated. In this study, the genetic diversity and genetic structure of 28 wild and 22 cultivated populations were estimated using three polymorphic chloroplast fragments. The objectives of this study are to provide baseline data for preserving genetic resource of S. baicalensis and to evaluate the genetic impacts of recent cultivation on medicinal plants, which may be instructive to future cultivation projects of traditional Chinese medicinal plants. Results Thirty-two haplotypes of S. baicalensis (HapA-Y and Hap1-7) were identified when three chloroplast spacers were combined. These haplotypes constituted a shallow gene tree without obvious clusters for cultivated populations, suggesting multiple origins of cultivated S. baicalensis. Cultivated populations (hT = 0.832) maintained comparable genetic variation with wild populations (hT = 0.888), indicating a slight genetic bottleneck due to multiple origins of cultivation. However, a substantial amount of rare alleles (10 out of 25 haplotypes within wild populations) lost during the course of S. baicalensis cultivation. The genetic differentiation for cultivated group (GST = 0.220) was significantly lower than that of wild group (GST = 0.701). Isolation by distance analysis showed that the effect of geographical isolation on genetic structure was significant in wild populations (r = 0.4346, P r = 0.0599, P = 0.2710). These genetic distribution patterns suggest that a transient cultivation history and the extensive seed change among different geographical areas during the course of S. baicalensis cultivation. Conclusions Although cultivated S. baicalensis maintains comparable genetic diversity relative to wild populations, recent cultivation has still imposed profound impacts on genetic diversity patterns of the cultivated S. baicalensis populations, i.e., the loss of rare alleles and homogenization of cultivated populations. This study suggests that conservation-by-cultivation is an effective means for protecting genetic resources of S. baicalensis, however, the wild resources still need to be protected in situ and the evolutionary consequences of extensive seed exchange mediated by human being should be monitored carefully.