The role of tree plantations as facilitators of tropical forest restoration in degraded lands has been explored recently, but there are few data on the effect of different tree species on invasion of the plant understory. We evaluated early patterns of understory composition in three-year-old native tree plantations in lowland Costa Rica using two pure-species treatment (Jacaranda copaia and Vochysia guatemalensis) and one mixed-species treatment (J. copaia, V. guatemalensis, Stryphnodendron microstachyum, and Calophyllum brasiliense). We also monitored woody invasion in unplanted control areas dominated by grasses. The understory of the different plantation treatments differed in light environment, woody-plant growth and recruitment, and quantity and quality of woody regeneration. Forest tree invasion appeared to be enhanced under Vochysia, while shrubs were more abundant under the Jacaranda and mixed-species treatments. Woody plant growth, herbaceous cover, and understory light availability were highest under Jacaranda, intermediate under mixed species, and lowest under Vochysia. Soil-stored seeds seemed an important source for woody plant recruitment in Jacaranda and mixed species and of minimal importance under Vochysia, probably due to light suppression. It appears that competition from grasses is a major factor influencing early woody invasion in our study area. We found no woody recruitment after one year in the unplanted controls. We suggest that to promote the use of plantations as tools of forest restoration, there is a need to gather basic ecological information on how different tree species may influence patterns of plant understory colonization.