The role of exotic tree plantations for biodiversity conservation is contested. Such plantations nevertheless offer various ecosystem service benefits, which include carbon storage and facilitation of indigenous tree species regeneration. To assess forest restoration potential in tropical exotic tree plantations, we assessed native cloud forest tree regeneration in 166 plots in ca. 50-year-old plantations of five timber species that are widely used in tropical plantations (Pinus patula, Eucalyptus saligna, Cupressus lusitanica, Grevillea robusta and Acacia mearnsii). Differences in species abundance, diversity and composition were compared among plantations, and between plantations and disturbed and undisturbed indigenous Afromontane cloud forest (southeast Kenya) relicts after controlling for environmental variation between plots (i.e. altitude, distance to indigenous forest, soil depth, slope, aspect) and for environmental and stand structural variation (i.e. dominant tree height and basal area). Regenerating trees were mostly early-successional species. Indigenous tree species regeneration was significantly higher in Grevillea plantations, where the seedling community also included late-successional tree species. Regeneration under Eucalyptus was particularly poor. Acacia had a strong invasive nature, reducing its potential role and usefulness in indigenous forest restoration. Our study underlined that exotic tree plantations have differential effects on native tree species regeneration, with high potential for Grevillea plantations and low potential for invasive exotic species.