Evolution and phylogenetic utility of the period gene are explored through sequence analysis of a relatively conserved 909-bp fragment in 26 lepidopteran species. Taxa range from tribes to superfamilies, primarily within the putative clade Macrolepidotera plus near outgroups, and include both strongly established and problematic groupings. Their divergence dates probably range from the late Cretaceous through much of the Tertiary. Comparisons within the same set of closely related species show that amino acid substitutions in period occur 4.9 and 44 times as frequently as they do in two other nuclear genes--dopa decarboxylase and elongation factor-1 alpha, respectively. In contrast, rates of observed synonymous substitution are within 60% of each other for these three genes. Synonymous changes in period approach saturation by the family level, whereas nonsynonymous and amino acid divergences across the Macrolepidoptera are less than half the maximal values reported for this gene. Phylogenetic analyses of period strongly supported groupings at the family level and below. In contrast to previous analyses at this level with other nuclear genes, much of the information lies in nonsynonymous change. Relationships up to the superfamily level were recovered with decreasing effectiveness, and little, if any, signal was apparent regarding relationships among superfamilies. This could reflect rapid radiation of the superfamilies, however, rather than saturation in the period locus; thus, period, in combination with other genes, remains a plausible candidate for approaching the difficult problems of lepidopteran family and superfamily relationships.