Changes to the timing of peak river flows caused by flow regulation affect riparian vegetation composition, but the mechanisms driving such vegetation changes are not well understood. We investigated experimentally the effects of timing of inundation on riparian plant growth and flowering. We collected 168 sods from 14 sites across five lowland rivers in south-eastern Australia. Plant cover and flowering within the sods were surveyed each season for a year. During this period, sods were inundated for 6 weeks in either early spring or in summer. Terrestrial plant taxa (which included most exotic species) senesced in response to inundation, regardless of its timing. In contrast, native amphibious species (particularly amphibious forbs) responded favourably to inundation in spring, but were unaffected by inundation in summer. Native and exotic emergent macrophytes responded favourably to inundation regardless of timing, and flowered frequently in both the spring- and the summer-inundation treatments. In contrast, many native annuals flowered only in the spring-inundation treatment, while more exotic grasses flowered in the summer-inundation treatment. In temperate climates, inundation in early spring followed by non-flooded conditions is likely to be important for promoting the growth of amphibious forbs and the recruitment and flowering of riparian annuals. Without inundation in spring, many terrestrial exotic weeds may flourish and set seed prior to any subsequent inundation (e. g. in summer). We contend that natural seasonal timing (i. e. winter-early spring) of flow peaks is important for the maintenance of native riverbank vegetation and reducing the extent of terrestrial exotic species within the riparian zone. © 2012 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.