Ephemeral disturbances are common in many systems. Often, these brief events are assumed to be a nuisance with little long-term ecological impact. We quantified the impact of the ephemeral forest disturbance caused by gypsy moth canopy defoliation on exotic plant invasion in eight hardwood forests in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, USA. Six years following the gypsy moth disturbance, we were able to predict 59% of the increase in Alliaria petiolata abundance and 42% of the increase in Microstegium vimineum abundance with models incorporating an interaction between disturbance severity and propagule pressure. In addition, we found that the disturbance timing had substantial impacts on the invasion dynamics of Alliaria petiolata. Our results suggest that ephemeral disturbances can have important and long-lasting impacts on plant communities, and highlight the need to account for variations in disturbance characteristics and the role of propagule pressure in determining the disturbance–invasion relationship.