No palms on Palm Sunday: Philly church using local grasses for lighter footprint

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Parishioners at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia will wave locally grown ornamental grasses rather than palm fronds during Palm Sunday services. Rector Claire Nevin-Field holds a sprig of Miscanthus sinensis, an ecologically friendly alternative to the traditional palm.

Parishioners at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia will wave locally grown ornamental grasses rather than palm fronds during Palm Sunday services. Rector Claire Nevin-Field holds a sprig of Miscanthus sinensis, an ecologically friendly alternative to the traditional palm. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia’ Society Hill is one of the oldest churches in the city. At more than 250 years old it is an historic landmark, one not afraid to change.

This weekend its congregants, along with Christians around the world, will observe Palm Sunday and mark the day Jesus entered Jerusalem to an adoring crowd waving palm fronds in his honor. It is the official start of Holy Week.

Instead of waving palms, St. Peter’s will wave ornamental grasses, in accordance with the church’s environmental theology.

“We had been using eco-friendly palm, which are sustainably harvested,” said Rev. Claire Nevin-Field, the church rector. “But even given that, most of those are imported from Central America or driven in trucks from Florida. That still is a pretty big carbon footprint. There has got to be stuff growing around here that we could use.”

Palm Sunday is a banner day for the palm industry.

“It’s huge,” said Nevin-Field. “If you go with the traditional palms, you can get them from local florists. They come in from other parts of the world and they know churches will order mass quantities.”

She reached out to her regular arborist, Erik Werner, who has been maintaining the old-growth trees in the church cemetery for many years, and asked him to find an alternative.

He happened upon a “man-sized” clump of miscanthus growing in front of Cedar Ridge Nursery, near Kulpsville, Pennsylvania. It had dried out for the winter. The nursery owner let Werner cut it down and load it into his truck. No money changed hands.

Miscanthus sinensis, used in ornanmental plantings, is commonly known as Chinese silver grass.
Miscanthus sinensis, used in ornamental plantings, is commonly known as Chinese silver grass. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Miscanthus is an ornamental grass native is Asia and now common in this region. Although it looks nothing like a palm frond, it’s reedy stalks grow tall and straight. “It’s similar to a cattail” said Werner.

“They actually look more like the non-eco palms, the long spear-like things I remember as a child using for sword fights in the middle of church,” said Nevin-Field.

It fits the message of the church, which sometimes preaches a theology of ecology wherein environmental sustainability trumps tradition.

“This is an ancient message of Christianity, but one we have turned away from,” she said. “We’ve lived into the idea — which I think is a gross misreading of Genesis — that humans were given dominion, so we can use everything for whatever we want. Genesis does talk about dominion, but it’s dominion in the image of God, and God does not trash things.”

Although eschewing the palm, St. Peter’s will still call the service Palm Sunday. Nevin-Field said she does not expect any congregants to “freak out.”

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