Abstract In recent years there has been growing interest in selenium (Se) as an important micronutrient not only for animals and humans but also for plants. In particular, its protective effect in plants exposed to stress conditions has been suggested. In spite of many studies, the mechanism of Se action is not fully understood. In this review, possible ways of interaction of Se with stress factors leading to optimal growth and development of plants are presented. As the majority of experiments have focused on the effects of Se application under stress conditions induced by heavy metals, special attention is paid to the results obtained in such studies. Changes of physiological and biochemical properties of plant cells, with particular regard to the influence of Se on the activation of enzymatic and non-enzymatic antioxidants under this stress, are summarized. Experiments in which Se was used in some other environmental stresses (drought, UV, cold and high temperature) are also cited. On the basis of the presented literature it is suggested that a positive effect of Se depends on both its doses and on chosen plant genotypes and is mainly connected with activation of antioxidative defense in plant cells.