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Seasonal patterns of native plant cover and leaf trait variation on New York City green roofs


Plants make important contributions to green roof ecosystem service provision through evapotranspiration, canopy shading, and water retention. Because these plant communities are a critical component of green roof design and function, both seasonal and interspecific variation of these plant communities are important factors in evaluating green roof performance. This study examines variation in both species abundance and 9 leaf traits throughout the 2015 growing season of four New York City green roofs. While community composition varied significantly between each month (pANOSIM = 0.036), three major plant families (Asteraceae, Lamiaceae, and Poaceae) consistently had the greatest green cover and were present during the entirety of the growing season. For leaf traits, period of the growing season had a significant impact on most of the traits measured. Leaf thickness, leaf relative water content (RWC) and saturated water content (SWC) decreased as the growing season progressed, while leaf dry matter content (LDMC) and stomatal density increased, likely due to a seasonal decrease in rainfall as species-level variance in these water traits is low (7.40% and 0.88%, respectively). We also ranked planted and spontaneous species in accordance to both cover and functional trait values, and identified 11 species suitable for green roofs in NYC: Pycnanthemum tenuifolium (Lamiaceae), Symphiotrichum leave, Symphiotrichum pilosum, Rudbeckia hirta, Solidago odora (Asteraceae), Panicum virgatum, Sorghastrum nutrans, Schizachyrium scoparium, Dichanthelium clandestinum, Deschampsia flexuosa (Poaceae), and Oenothera biennis (Onagraceae). Understanding the temporal responses of plant communities and their constituent species is critical in optimizing green roof ecosystem services.

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Availability of data and material

Upon publication, the data will be made available for use on the TRY Plant Trait Database.

Code availability

Upon publication, the code will be made available for use on the TRY Plant Trait Database.


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We would like to thank the New York City Parks Department and Barnard College for providing access to the green roof sites used in this study. We also thank Amita Wanar, Angeli Sandoval, Rachel H. Tao, and Sarah G. Bruner for their immense assistance in field sampling, observation, and laboratory processing. Finally, we would like to thank Dr. Meghan L. Avolio, Allison Blanchette, Smriti Pehim-Limbu, Dr. Ava Hoffman, and Dr. Kaitlin Kimmel at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences for their editorial input.


This work was made possible through the financial support of Columbia University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, and the Columbia University Earth Institute.

Author information




Eric Yee, Hilary Callahan, Kevin Griffin, and Matthew Palmer conceived and designed the study. Eric Yee and Sojin Lee carried out field observation, laboratory procedures, and data analysis. Eric Yee wrote the manuscript, and edited it with the assistance of Hillary Callahan, Kevin Griffin, and Matthew Palmer.

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Correspondence to Eric G. Yee.

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Yee, E.G., Callahan, H.S., Griffin, K.L. et al. Seasonal patterns of native plant cover and leaf trait variation on New York City green roofs. Urban Ecosyst (2021).

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  • Biodiversity
  • Urban Ecology
  • Plant Traits
  • Native Plants
  • Green Infrastructure