Today is Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar, marking the beginning of Holy Week with Jesus’ return to Jerusalem before his death. Even after one cup of coffee this morning, it is the only Christian holy day I can think of named for a plant. It comes from the fact that palm leaves, a symbol of victory, were used to line the streets as Jesus returned.
Today Christians keep the tradition of processions with palm leaves to mark the spiritual victory celebrated at the end of Holy Week. Notably, these palms are burned after the celebration and the ashes are used in the Ash Wednesday service marking the beginning of Lent. However, palms are not easily found in all climates. In some locales other native plants (willow or live branches) are used as a substitute. Our modern global economy now makes it possible to obtain some kind of palm frond for a more authentic celebration of Palm Sunday.
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to most of Christianity, this tradition is increasingly exploiting the sensitive environment of the rainforest. Xaté palms are prized for their dark green leaves and longevity as cut greenery in floral arrangements. Despite these desirable characteristics, xaté palms are not typically commercially cultivated, but wild-harvested from rainforests in Central America. This practice coupled with the demands for the ideal green filler for the floral industry has resulted in the over-exploitation of this species in its natural habitat. For example, xaté is nearly extinct in Guatemala. In Belize, xaté is still harvested in protected parks because of the logistical difficulties of patrolling these areas. Removal of this one species weakens the complex rainforest ecosystem where it thrives.
Organizations like Fauna and Flora International are working on initiatives to protect xaté palms in their natural habitats. They are also supporting efforts to develop techniques for effectively growing the palms as a specialty crop because it is a valuable horticulture product for the people of Central America.
So today and other days when you’re using floral arrangements to “Say it with flowers,” try to track the source of your palms. Loss of a beautiful and diversity-rich ecosystem for the sake of a filler or exotic component of a ceremony is no triumph at all.
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