For centuries, Christians have celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem by waving branches of either palm or another local tree.
In the U.S. alone, nearly 18,000 Catholic parishes distribute fresh palm branches to the faithful and that doesn’t include all of the Protestant churches that observe the tradition.
The final destination of the palms is to be burned for the ashes used during the following year’s Ash Wednesday services. But where do they come from in the first place?
The work needed to provide palms for Palm Sunday is so immense that it actually constitutes a full-time year-round job for some harvesters.
While there are more than 2,600 different species of palm that grow across the world, palm plants cannot survive outside of tropical and subtropical climates. Historically, parishes that could not source palm locally would instead substitute branches of another local tree such as olive or willow, although modern churches also have the option of sourcing palm fronds from other regions of the world.
In the United States and Canada, most parishes seek out suppliers who deliver fresh palms shortly before Palm Sunday, said Fr. Michael J. Flynn, Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Palms are sourced from Florida, Texas, California and elsewhere in the Southern United States.
Although many American-based palm sources are not labeled as “eco-friendly,” the practices of many major U.S. palm harvesters are indeed environmentally sustainable.
Thomas Sowell has been helping to supply parishes with fresh palm leaves for more than five decades. His business ships the leafy branches to all 50 states and Canada. He says he tries to maintain his focus on the purpose behind it all.
“Every bag that we send out to churches, every individual bag has been examined, cleaned – we go to extreme measures to make sure that everything we do for these churches is done in the honor of Jesus Christ.”
“Our guys don’t kill the palm,” he said, adding that by sourcing palms from American harvesters as opposed to internationally-certified “green” farmers, they help to reduce the ecological impact of shipping and transportation.
“I know that there are trees that are still being cut today that I cut when I was twelve,” he said.