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How to Make Your Roof Green with Native Plants

How to Make Your Roof Green with Native Plants

All over the world, people are planting gardens in the sky. Well not gardens, exactly, and while they’re definitely at a higher elevations, they’re not exactly in the sky.

We’re talking about green roofs, the practice of planting greenery on a rooftop rather than just slathering it with tar and calling it a day. Green roofs have been shown to reduce urban heat-island effects, regulate building temperature, and help manage stormwater runoff, all positive effects in big cities where the greenery that usually performs these tasks has all but disappeared.

Here’s the thing, the plants on most green roofs are pretty boring. To survive the harsh environment of a skyscraper’s roof, vegetation has to be able to survive high winds, prolonged UV radiation and often, a severe lack of water. That’s why a majority of green roofs are planted with sedum, a non-native species that can survive wind and long periods without rainfall, according to Scientific American.

While it may be long-suffering, sedum doesn’t retain water as efficiently as other plants and sometimes it actually absorbs heat instead of reflecting it. Rendering the entire green roof useless. For the thousands of green roofs around the world, this is a problem.

A study, published in PLoS ONE last April, found that in order to reap all the planet-cooling benefits of a green roof, it’s necessary to plant a diverse array of plants, preferably ones that are native to the region. Doing so may take some tender loving care, like occasional watering, but there are worse things than being forced to visit your rooftop oasis once in a while.

If you’ve been thinking about experimenting with a green roof for your home or business, here are some regionally appropriate plants that you might want to investigate.

Southern USA

Northern Sea Oats – an ornamental grass that likes full sun to part shade and well-drained soil.
Butterfly Weed –  An extremely hardy, long-lived perennial that displays clusters of brilliant orange flowers Jun-Aug.
Woodland Phlox – This tough little flower is disease resistant, doesn’t mind shade, and delivers a wonderful scent.

Midwest USA

Indigo Bush – This bush yields small, dark blue flowers, and loves growing in dry, sandy soil at high elevations.
Swamp Milkweed – This plant offers clusters of upturned pink flowers draw butterflies, and does well in average soil moisture.
Cup-Plant – This stout wildflower an grow to a height of 3-6 feet! The small cup formed by the leaves holds water and attracts birds.

Northeast USA

Northern Oatgrass – In the wild, this grass grows on the edge woodland roads and paths, often in thin acidic soils.
Black-eyed Susan – These bright cheery flowers grow quickly in just about any kind of soil.
Northern Dewberry – This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds, and self-sows freely.

Southwest USA

Texas Sedge – This plant is a good turf substitute for dry to moist shade and is extremely heat-tolerant.
Purple Coneflower – With long-lasting, lavender flowers, this Echinacea plant can handle dry, sandy soil.
Crossvine – This climbing vine produces orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers, needs little water, and handles cold well.

West/Northwest USA

Creeping Oregon Grape –  With holly-like leaves and dark blue edible berries, this plant does well in dry soil and high elevation.
Red Columbine – A beautiful perennial that’s happy in all sorts of tough environments. Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.
Silver Sagebrush – This hardy plant requires little water and can thrive in rocky soils.

Of course, this list is only a taste of the many native plants that will ensure a successful green roof. For more info, visit the resources below.


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Photo: Evan Long/flickr

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12:20AM PDT on Aug 25, 2015

This is a great post; it was very edifying. I look ahead in reading more of your work. roof repair Sugar Land

4:43AM PDT on Jul 6, 2013

Thank you Beth, for Sharing this!

4:49PM PDT on Jun 14, 2013

Interesting, thank you.

11:46AM PDT on Jun 6, 2013

Oh we also wanted to point out that metal roofs are a greener choice of material for roofs (under all those plants of course) because of their long life span. Consider:

Unlike asphalt shingle, tar and gravel, and membrane roofs that have a lifespan measured in the 15 – 20 year range depending on factors such as slope, geographical location, installation methods, roof insulation, roof design and exposure to sun, a properly maintained metal roof can last 75 years +. We have replaced steel roofing that has been in service for 100+ years. There are different types of metal roofing systems and each provides a different life expectancy. I have a thru-fastened metal roof that is approaching 90 years. So long as the roof is rust-free, fasteners (nails or screws) are water-tight and flashings are maintained, a metal roof should last 75 years +.

David Mackey

10:44AM PDT on Jun 6, 2013

We love that you took the time to even list regionally appropriate native plants for green roofs. Since we are passionate metal roofers, we wanted to share information on how to make that green roof even greener by taking a look at what you plant on in the first place. Consider:

Metal roofs are designated "Green" for many reasons the most notable of which are the fact that they are 100% recyclable, made from a high % of recycled metals and have a very high rating for solar reflectivity. In terms of planting grass, flowers, etc on a metal roof to create a "living roof", the underlying construction of a typical living roof utilizes an EPDM membrane (think pond liner) for the waterproofing of the building. Steel decking is often used as the substrate structure, but it usually requires the installation of a membrane over-top. With regard to weight, it will depend on the structure design of the roof frame and the specific metal roof panel being used. Roof slope, truss material, design and spacing, and metal panel gauge & design will all determine load ratings. Consult with a building engineer prior to increasing dead load on a roof.

David Mackey

6:07AM PDT on Jun 5, 2013

It's the best air-purifier and cooler

8:11PM PDT on Jun 4, 2013


5:37PM PDT on Jun 4, 2013

Yes green roofs are the way to go if we want to ever be sustainable. It would be awesome to do that at work as we have a large surface area warehouse type building with a flat roof that heats up pretty fast in the summer, I'm guessing our electric bill is pretty high.
How much soil do these plants require and can your roof handle the added weight. My guess is most residential roofs cannot handle the weight and are too steep a pitch.

2:30PM PDT on Jun 4, 2013

This is definitely the way to the idea of using native plants. So important for many reasons.

12:20PM PDT on Jun 3, 2013

Love this idea!!!

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