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Palm-free Palm Sunday: a green Philly church opts for local grasses

When Christian congregations around the world celebrate Jesus Christ's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem by waving palms during services on Sunday, members of St. Peter's Episcopal Church will mark the day in their own sustainable way, with a locally-grown ornamental grass.

Rev. Claire Nevin-Field holds the ornamental grass that members of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Society Hill will wave on Palm Sunday.
Rev. Claire Nevin-Field holds the ornamental grass that members of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Society Hill will wave on Palm Sunday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

In its mission to be an eco-friendly congregation, St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Society Hill has been examining every aspect of the way members practice their faith, from the design of a new community house to the paper cups at coffee hour.

And now, the palms. They had to go.

On Sunday, when Christians worldwide celebrate Jesus Christ's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem by waving palm fronds during services, St. Peter's will mark the day in a sustainable way — with dried stalks of locally grown ornamental grass.

The Miscanthus sinensis "Gracillimus," commonly called Japanese or Chinese Silver grass, was cultivated and donated by a nursery in Montgomery County.

"Palms are certainly the tradition of the church because it is likely they were used on the original Palm Sunday," said the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field, rector of the 257-year-old St. Peter's.  "But there is nothing magical about them. It's just that they were local" to the Holy Land.

The thin-bladed plant, also known as Eulalia, will replace the fanlike palms the congregation used for the last several years as part of another green initiative. The church had been among more than 5,000 in the U.S. that switched to Eco-Palms, gatherings of fresh palm fronds attached to a central stem that are imported from Guatemala.

Eco-Palms are harvested and marketed in ways that help preserve the rain forest while still providing a living for palm workers and their communities. Without particular care in harvesting, palm leaves — imported mostly from not only Guatemala but also Mexico and Belize — are cut in ways that damage the trees and the forest.  Deforestation causes about 15 percent of carbon emissions around the world, said Dean Current, founder of the Eco-Palms program and director of the Center for Integrated Natural Resource and Agricultural Management at the University of Minnesota.

This year, about 286 churches in Pennsylvania and 96 in New Jersey ordered palms through the Eco-Palms website. St. Peter's  had spent about $120 for its annual supply.

The program has produced a million palm fronds each year since 2014, resulting in about $50,000 sent back annually to communities in Central America to use for school tuition, teacher pay, and health centers.

Eco-Palms, however, have their own carbon footprint. The fronds are shipped by boat to Florida, transported by truck to regional distribution centers, then express-mailed to churches.

"I respect [St. Peter's]  and that they are thinking about their carbon footprint. We all need to think about that," Current said. "My take on it is that we are losing forest all over the world, and when you combine the environmental benefits of helping to save the forest with the social piece of helping communities, [any environmental liabilities are] worth it to me."

The Rev. Hillary Watson isn't so sure.

Last year, Watson, an associate pastor at Lombard Mennonite Church in Illinois, wrote a column for the Mennonite World Review website urging churches to use local plants for Palm Sunday. Her congregation near Chicago has unsubscribed to Eco-Palms and since then has waved evergreen branches from the church's yard on Palm Sunday. To help Central American families, the congregation makes donations to charity — for instance, to purchase a hive of honeybees for small-scale farmers in Central America.

"I researched and thought about the environmental expense of all these well-intentioned North American churches importing palms from 3,000 miles away," Watson said. "As Easter coincides with the beginning of spring, I was walking around seeing all these blossoms, and I thought, 'There has to be something else that we can do.' "

At St. Peter's, the church's decision to go local for Palm Sunday was a product of the 400-member congregation's recent focus on creation theology. "The idea is that everything that is created is an expression of God," said Nevin-Field. "Therefore we have an obligation to treat the earth reverently as the first incarnation of God."

The church formed a sustainability committee to research how St. Peter's could reduce its carbon footprint, examining cleaning products, sanctuary lighting, heating, air-conditioning, and the manner in which holidays are observed.  That included Palm Sunday.

"Frankly, it seems kind of daft to fly in something from Guatemala," Nevin-Field said. "We wave them around for a bit, and that's it."

Parish administrator Kate Randall asked a decorator who helps adorn the sanctuary at Christmas about a palm substitute. Nothing. She asked the church florist. Again, nothing. So she turned to the congregation's arborist.

The St. Peter's sanctuary building at Third and Pine Streets stands next to its cemetery, dotted by oaks, sycamores, and Osage orange trees. Erik Werner, of the Hedgerows Tree Service in Philadelphia, cares for them, and can tell you their history, including the Osage orange's connection to the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Werner sought advice from Craig Eberbach, of Cedar Ridge Nursery Inc. The owner of the Montgomery County landscaping company had an idea.

"Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus,' we grow it and sell it," Eberbach said, "There are different kinds. It can be invasive, but this isn't."

Sold as a potted plant, the ornamental grass grows tall, wispy and green in the summer and can be topped with copper flowers as the season progresses. It is native to lowlands and lower alpine areas in Japan, the Korean peninsula, and China. In the cold months, the grass turns beige, similar to the color of the old dried fronds the church used before it began waving Eco-Palms.

Werner picked up a complimentary bundle of it from Cedar Ridge about three weeks ago and stashed it in the churchyard's brick shed, which once was used to store the congregation's funeral bier.

During two services Sunday, members will march on the winding path leading to the church waving the dried spindles of ornamental grass.

Randall and Nevin-Field say they expect some questions. They got them when they switched to Eco-Palms.

Members said: "What are these? Are they real?"

Nevin-Field told them: "It's legit. It's OK. God will still love us."