Abstract Native vegetation has been destroyed or dramatically modified throughout agricultural regions of southern Australia. Extensive restoration of native perennial vegetation is likely to be crucial in these areas for the persistence of native plant and animal species, to ameliorate dryland salinity and soil degradation, and to maintain long-term agricultural production. The long-term resilience of these systems will be dependent on the ability of key functional taxa, such as perennial shrubs, to recruit and persist. In this study, we examine the factors limiting establishment of two perennial shrubs in formerly cropped land, the rare Maireana rohrlachii and the common Maireana decalvans. Field and laboratory observations suggest that establishment of both species is not limited by life-history traits following cultivation. Both species established and persisted under varying levels of plant competition. Similarities existed between species in their initial germination rates. Weak differences were found between species in the growth and survival rates under different levels of competition. The main difference between the two species was in the decline of germinability of fruits with increasing fruit age. From the data, it is difficult to determine what factors limit the establishment of perennial shrubs in these landscapes. The main hypothesis that can be advanced is that establishment of shrub species appears to be limited by propagule availability and this is likely to be a function of past and present grazing management rather than cultivation per se. Further investigation of these land-use practices may give greater insight into the factors affecting the establishment of this life form across these landscapes.