Among heavy metal plants (the metallophytes), facultative species can live both in soils contaminated by an excess of heavy metals and in non-affected sites. In contrast, obligate metallophytes are restricted to polluted areas. Metallophytes offer a fascinating biology, due to the fact that species have developed different strategies to cope with the adverse conditions of heavy metal soils. The literature distinguishes between hyperaccumulating, accumulating, tolerant and excluding metallophytes, but the borderline between these categories is blurred. Due to the fact that heavy metal soils are dry, nutrient limited and are not uniform but have a patchy distribution in many instances, drought-tolerant or low nutrient demanding species are often regarded as metallophytes in the literature. In only a few cases, the concentrations of heavy metals in soils are so toxic that only a few specifically adapted plants, the genuine metallophytes, can cope with these adverse soil conditions. Current molecular biological studies focus on the genetically amenable and hyperaccumulating Arabidopsis halleri and Noccaea (Thlaspi) caerulescens of the Brassicaceae. Armeria maritima ssp. halleri utilizes glands for the excretion of heavy metals and is, therefore, a heavy metal excluder. The two endemic zinc violets of Western Europe, Viola lutea ssp. calaminaria of the Aachen-Liège area and Viola lutea ssp. westfalica of the Pb-Cu-ditch of Blankenrode, Eastern Westphalia, as well as Viola tricolor ecotypes of Eastern Europe, keep their cells free of excess heavy metals by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi which bind heavy metals. The Caryophyllaceae, Silene vulgaris f. humilis and Minuartia verna, apparently discard leaves when overloaded with heavy metals. All Central European metallophytes have close relatives that grow in areas outside of heavy metal soils, mainly in the Alps, and have, therefore, been considered as relicts of the glacial epoch in the past. However, the current literature favours the idea that hyperaccumulation of heavy metals serves plants as deterrent against attack by feeding animals (termed elemental defense hypothesis). The capability to hyperaccumulate heavy metals in A. halleri and N. caerulescens is achieved by duplications and alterations of the cis-regulatory properties of genes coding for heavy metal transporting/excreting proteins. Several metallophytes have developed ecotypes with a varying content of such heavy metal transporters as an adaption to the specific toxicity of a heavy metal site.