Evolution during biological invasion may occur over contemporary timescales, but the rate of evolutionary change may be inhibited by a lack of standing genetic variation for ecologically relevant traits and by fitness trade-offs among them. The extent to which these genetic constraints limit the evolution of local adaptation during biological invasion has rarely been examined. To investigate genetic constraints on life-history traits, we measured standing genetic variance and covariance in 20 populations of the invasive plant purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) sampled along a latitudinal climatic gradient in eastern North America and grown under uniform conditions in a glasshouse. Genetic variances within and among populations were significant for all traits; however, strong intercorrelations among measurements of seedling growth rate, time to reproductive maturity and adult size suggested that fitness trade-offs have constrained population divergence. Evidence to support this hypothesis was obtained from the genetic variance–covariance matrix (G) and the matrix of (co)variance among population means (D), which were 79.8% (95% C.I. 77.7–82.9%) similar. These results suggest that population divergence during invasive spread of L. salicaria in eastern North America has been constrained by strong genetic correlations among life-history traits, despite large amounts of standing genetic variation for individual traits.