Because hereditary symbiont transmission is normally absent in the mutualism of legume plants and root-nodule bacteria (rhizobia), dispersing plants may often arrive at new habitats where mutualist partners are too rare to provide full benefits. Factors governing invasion success were explored by analysing a system of two coupled pairwise competition models: a legume invader competing with a resident non-mutualistic plant, and a rhizobial population competing with a resident population of nonsymbiotic bacteria. The non-linear dependence of benefits on partner abundance in this mutualism creates the possibility of two alternative population size equilibria, so that a threshold density can exist for invasion. If legumes and rhizobia exceed a critical population size, both species achieve rapid population growth, while if initial densities of both species are below their respective thresholds, they remain rare and are thus vulnerable to extinction in the presence of competitors. Overall, the results indicate that legumes may often fail at colonization attempts within habitats where mutualist partners are scarce. Data on legume prevalence in island floras and rates of geographical spread by legume weeds are consistent with this inference. Predictive insights about invasiveness may emerge from comparative research on key traits identified by the model, especially the shape of the function determining the number of nodules formed at low rhizobial density.