Peganum harmala seeds were assessed as biosorbent for removing Pb2+, Zn2+and Cd2+ ions from aqueous solutions. The effects of various parameters such as the aqueous solution pH, the contact time, the initial metal concentration and the amount of adsorbent in the process were investigated. The adsorption efficiencies increased with pH. It was found that about 95 % of lead, 75 % of zinc and 90 % of cadmium ions could be removed from 45 ml of aqueous solution containing 20 mg l−1 of each cation with 2 g of adsorbent at pH 4.5 after 15 min. The quantitative desorption of cadmium from adsorbent surface was achieved using 10 ml of a 0.5 M nitric acid solution. This condition was attained for lead and zinc ions with 10 ml of 1 M hydrochloric acid solution. Kinetic investigation of the process was performed by considering a pseudo-second-order model. This model predicts the chemisorption mechanism of the process. Langmuir, Freundlich, Temkin and Dubinin–Radushkevich models were tested for describing the equilibrium data. It was found that the Freundlich model describes the experimental data resulting from the adsorption of lead ions. However for cadmium and zinc ions, the adsorption equilibria were interpreted with the Langmuir model.