Plant communities along tropical coastlines are often affected by natural and human disturbances, but little is known about factors influencing recovery. We focused on mangrove forests, which are among the most threatened ecosystems globally, to examine how facilitation by herbaceous vegetation might improve forest restoration after disturbance. We specifically investigated whether recovery of mangrove forests in harsh environments is accelerated by nurse plants and whether the beneficial effects are species-specific. Quantification of standardized effects allowed comparisons across performance parameters and over time for: (1) net effect of each herbaceous species on mangrove survival and growth, (2) effects of pre- and post-establishment factors associated with each herbaceous species, and (3) need for artificial planting to enhance growth or survival of mangrove seedlings. Mangrove recruitment in a clear-cut forest in Belize was accelerated by the presence of Sesuvium portulacastrum (succulent forb) and Distichlis spicata (grass), two coastal species common throughout the Caribbean region. The net effect of herbaceous vegetation was positive, but the magnitude of effects on mangrove survival and growth differed by species. Because of differences in their vegetative structure and other features, species effects on mangroves also varied by mechanism: (1) trapping of dispersing propagules (both species), (2) structural support of the seedling (Distichlis), and/or (3) promotion of survival (Sesuvium) or growth (Distichlis) through amelioration of soil conditions (temperature, aeration). Artificial planting had a stronger positive effect on mangrove survival than did edaphic conditions, but planting enhanced mangrove growth more in Sesuvium than in Distichlis patches. Our study indicates that beneficial species might be selected based on features that provide multiple positive effects and that species comparisons may be improved using standardized effects. Our findings are not only relevant to the coastal environments found in the Caribbean region, but our assessment methods may be useful for developing site-specific information to restore disturbed mangrove forests worldwide, especially given the large pool of mangrove associates (>45 genera) available for screening. ?? 2007 by the Ecological Society of America.