We measured plant recruitment patterns, successional dynamics, and biophysical processes on laterally expansive floodplains of the Kwethluk River, Alaska. The main channel of this gravel-bed river frequently avulses and possesses an anabranching plan form. Fluvial processes were interactive with life history processes of riparian plants in determining initial stages of primary succession. Reproductive strategies and herbivory became important factors later in succession. We conducted plant age and compositional surveys to assess patterns of propagule deposition. We found that dispersal strategies of species were an important factor influencing recruitment patterns. Flood-dispersed seeds resulted in even-aged cohorts of species persistently segregated in space, based on age data. Sediment characteristics and inundation potential had little influence on seedling distributions. Recruitment was also segregated on the basis of dispersal strategy. At the heads of bars, where vegetative propagules (live drift wood) were entombed during floods, the distributions of species were random. This size-selective nature of recruitment persisted through time. Vegetation age and distribution patterns were further diversified by the river's legacy of gravel deposition that diversified the primary successional pathway: one associated with ridges and another with swales. Interactions between these pathways and beaver herbivory initiated secondary succession. We used satellite imagery to quantify the extent of floodplain influenced by herbivory and to assess the importance of this driver of secondary succession. We also used high-resolution aerial imagery and randomly selected sites to provide an unbiased analysis. We classified this imagery to quantify the spatial extent of herbivory and its influence on the initiation of secondary succession. The results showed, in addition to recruitment and successional dynamics, the flood-plain habitat mosaic was diversified by the initiation of secondary succession. Patch and species composition within the vegetation mosaics were significantly different than those portions of the floodplain engaged in primary succession. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.