Sunflower mutant lines with an enhanced tolerance and metal accumulation capacity obtained by mutation breeding have been proposed for Zn, Cd and Cu removal from metal-contaminated soils in previous studies. However, soils contaminated with trace elements induce various biochemical alterations in plants leading to oxidative stress. There is a lack of knowledge concerning the metal accumulation and antioxidant responses during the growth and development of sunflowers. This study, therefore, aimed to characterise metal accumulation and possible metal detoxification mechanisms in young seedlings and adult sunflowers. Beside the inbred line, two mutant lines with an improved growth and enhanced metal uptake capacity on a metal contaminated soil were investigated in more detail. Sunflowers cultivated on a metal-contaminated soil in the greenhouse showed a decrease in shoot biomass and chlorophyll concentration in two different developmental stages. Adult sunflowers showed a lower sensitivity to metal toxicity than young seedlings, whereas mutant lines were more tolerant to metal stress than the control. Mutant lines also produced a higher amount of carotenoids on a metal contaminated soil than on the control soil, indicating a possible protective mechanism of sunflower mutants against oxidative stress caused by Cd and excess Zn. Heavy metals primarily increased the activity of antioxidant enzymes involved in the ascorbate–glutathione cycle in sunflower leaves. Activity of dehydroascorbate reductase (DHAR), monodehydroascorbate reductase (MDHAR) and glutathione reductase (GR) was strongly increased in young seedlings exposed to heavy metals. The enzyme activities were even more pronounced in mutant lines. A significantly increased ascorbate peroxidase (APOX) activity in adult sunflowers exposed to heavy metals indicated an elevated use of ascorbate after a longer exposure to metal stress. An increased antioxidant level corresponded to a high Cd and Zn accumulation in young and adult sunflowers.Metal distribution, zinc translocation in particular, from the root into the shoot tissue obviously increased during sunflower growth and ripening. Altogether, these results suggest that sunflower plants, primarily the mutant lines, possess an efficient defence mechanism against oxidative stress caused by metal toxicity. A good tolerance of sunflowers toward heavy metals coupled with an increased metal accumulation capacity might contribute to an efficient removal of heavy metals from a polluted area.