Tolerance and metal uptake are two essential characteristics required for phytoextraction of metals from contaminated soils. We compared tolerance and Cu uptake of Elsholtzia splendens (reported previously to be a Cu hyperaccumulator) with Silene vulgaris (the Imsbach population, a well-known Cu-tolerant excluder species), using 30 soils varying widely in total Cu concentration (19-8645 mg kg(-1)). We further investigated the effectiveness of different soil testing methods for predicting plant metal uptake. The results showed that both Elsholtzia splendens and Silene vulgaris were tolerant to Cu, especially Silene vulgaris. However, Elsholtzia splendens did not hyperaccumulate Cu, but behaved as a typical Cu excluder like Silene vulgaris. The concentrations of Cu in both plants correlated more closely with 1 M NH4NO3 extractable Cu, soil solution Cu, or effective Cu concentration determined using DGT, than with soil total Cu, EDTA extractable Cu or free Cu2+ activity. The relationships between soil solution properties and root Cu concentrations were further investigated using multiple regression. The results showed that increasing soil solution pH increased root Cu concentration when free Cu2+ activity was held constant, suggesting a higher phytoavailability of free Cu2+ at a higher pH. Soil solution DOC appeared to play two contrasting roles on the phytoavailability of Cu: (1) reducing Cu availability by complexing Cu; and (2) increasing Cu availability at the same level of free Cu2+ activity by providing a strong buffer for free Cu2+. The results are consistent with the intensity/capacity concept for phytoavailability of metals in soils.