Life-history traits of invasive exotic plants are typically considered to be exceptional vis-à-vis native species. In particular, hyper-fecundity and long range dispersal are regarded as invasive traits, but direct comparisons with native species are needed to identify the life-history stages behind invasiveness. Until recently, this task was particularly problematic in forests as tree fecundity and dispersal were difficult to characterize in closed stands. We used inverse modelling to parameterize fecundity, seed dispersal and seedling dispersion functions for two exotic and eight native tree species in closed-canopy forests in Connecticut, USA. Interannual variation in seed production was dramatic for all species, with complete seed crop failures in at least one year for six native species. However, the average per capita seed production of the exotic Ailanthus altissima was extraordinary: > 40 times higher than the next highest species. Seed production of the shade tolerant exotic Acer platanoides was average, but much higher than the native shade tolerant species, and the density of its established seedlings (≥ 3 years) was higher than any other species. Overall, the data supported a model in which adults of native and exotic species must reach a minimum size before seed production occurred. Once reached, the relationship between tree diameter and seed production was fairly flat for seven species, including both exotics. Seed dispersal was highly localized and usually showed a steep decline with increasing distance from parent trees: only Ailanthus altissima and Fraxinus americana had mean dispersal distances > 10 m. Janzen-Connell patterns were clearly evident for both native and exotic species, as the mode and mean dispersion distance of seedlings were further from potential parent trees than seeds. The comparable intensity of Janzen-Connell effects between native and exotic species suggests that the enemy escape hypothesis alone cannot explain the invasiveness of these exotics. Our study confirms the general importance of colonization processes in invasions, yet demonstrates how invasiveness can occur via divergent colonization strategies. Dispersal limitation of Acer platanoides and recruitment limitation of Ailanthus altissima will likely constitute some limit on their invasiveness in closed-canopy forests.