Background Petrocosmea Oliver (Gesneriaceae) currently comprises 38 species with four non-nominate varieties, nearly all of which have been described solely from herbarium specimens. However, the dried specimens have obscured the full range of extremely diverse morphological variation that exists in the genus and has resulted in a poor subgeneric classification system that does not reflect the evolutionary history of this group. It is important to develop innovative methods to find new morphological traits and reexamine and reevaluate the traditionally used morphological data based on new hypothesis. In addition, Petrocosmea is a mid-sized genus but exhibits extreme diverse floral variants. This makes the genus of particular interest in addressing the question whether there are any key factors that is specifically associated with their evolution and diversification. Results Here we present the first phylogenetic analyses of the genus based on dense taxonomic sampling and multiple genes combined with a comprehensive morphological investigation. Maximum-parsimony, maximum likelihood and Bayesian analyses of molecular data from two nuclear DNA and six cpDNA regions support the monophyly of Petrocosmea and recover five major clades within the genus, which is strongly corroborated by the reconstruction of ancestral states for twelve new morphological characters directly observed from living material. Ancestral area reconstruction shows that its most common ancestor was likely located east and southeast of the Himalaya-Tibetan plateau. The origin of Petrocosmea from a potentially Raphiocarpus-like ancestor might have involved a series of morphological modifications from caulescent to acaulescent habit as well as from a tetrandrous flower with a long corolla-tube to a diandrous flower with a short corolla-tube, also evident in the vestigial caulescent habit and transitional floral form in clade A that is sister to the remainder of the genus. Among the five clades in Petrocosmea, the patterns of floral morphological differentiation are consistent with discontinuous lineage-associated morphotypes as a repeated adaptive response to alternative environments. Conclusion Our results suggest that the lineage-specific morphological differentiations reflected in the upper lip, a functional organ for insect pollination, are likely adaptive responses to pollinator shifts. We further recognize that the floral morphological diversification in Petrocosmea involves several evolutionary phenomena, i.e. evolutionary successive specialization, reversals, parallel evolution, and convergent evolution, which are probably associated with adaptation to pollination against the background of heterogeneous abiotic and biotic environments in the eastern wing regions of Himalaya-Tibetan plateau. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12870-015-0540-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.