Soil chemical changes produced by metal smelters have mainly been studied on a large scale. In terms of plant survival, determination of small scale variability may be more important because less toxic microhabitats may represent safe sites for successful recruitment and thus for plant survival. Three dominant microhabitats (open spaces and areas below the canopy of Sphaeralcea obtusiloba and Baccharis linearis shrubs) were defined in a heavily polluted area near a copper smelter and characterised in terms of microclimate, general soil chemistry, total and extractable metal concentrations in the soil profile (A0 horizon, 0-5 and 15-20 cm depth), and seedling densities. Results indicated a strong variability in microclimate and soil chemistry not only in the soil profile but also among microhabitats. Air/soil temperatures, radiation and wind speed were much lower under the canopy of shrubs, particularly during the plant growth season. Soil acidification was detected on top layers (0-5 cm depth) of all microhabitats while higher concentrations of N, Cu and Cd were detected on litter and top soil layers below shrubs when compared to open spaces; however, high organic matter content below shrubs decreased bioavailability of metals. Plant recruitment was concentrated under shrub canopies; this may be explained as a result of the nursery effect exerted by shrubs in terms of providing a more favourable microclimate, along with better soil conditions in terms of macronutrients and metal bioavailability.