Secondary forests are more extensive than old-growth forests in many tropical regions, yet the genetic composition of colonizing populations is poorly understood. We analyzed the parentage of a founder population of 130 individuals of the canopy palm Iriartea deltoidea in a 24-year-old second-growth forest in lowland Costa Rica. Among 66 trees in adjacent old-growth forest, only two individuals contributed 56% of the genes in founders. Second-growth trees had lower genetic diversity and larger patches of similar genotypes than old-growth trees. Recovery of genetic diversity of populations in tropical second-growth forests may take many generations and will require continued dispersal from genetically diverse source populations.