Positive and negative plant–plant interactions are major processes shaping plant communities. They are affected by environmental conditions and evolutionary relationships among the interacting plants. However, the generality of these factors as drivers of pairwise plant interactions and their combined effects remain virtually unknown. We conducted an observational study to assess how environmental conditions (altitude, temperature, irradiance and rainfall), the dispersal mechanism of beneficiary species and evolutionary relationships affected the co-occurrence of pairwise interactions in 11 Stipa tenacissima steppes located along an environmental gradient in Spain. We studied 197 pairwise plant–plant interactions involving the two major nurse plants (the resprouting shrub Quercus coccifera and the tussock grass S. tenacissima) found in these communities. The relative importance of the studied factors varied with the nurse species considered. None of the factors studied were good predictors of the co-ocurrence between S. tenacissima and its neighbours. However, both the dispersal mechanism of the beneficiary species and the phylogenetic distance between interacting species were crucial factors affecting the co-occurrence between Q. coccifera and its neighbours, while climatic conditions (irradiance) played a secondary role. Values of phylogenetic distance between 207–272.8 Myr led to competition, while values outside this range or fleshy-fruitness in the beneficiary species led to positive interactions. The low importance of environmental conditions as a general driver of pairwise interactions was caused by the species-specific response to changes in either rainfall or radiation. This result suggests that factors other than climatic conditions must be included in theoretical models aimed to generally predict the outcome of plant–plant interactions. Our study helps to improve current theory on plant–plant interactions and to understand how these interactions can respond to expected modifications in species composition and climate associated to ongoing global environmental change.