Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Palm

The Sunday before Easter Day, Palm Sunday, commemorates Christ’s entry to Jerusalem as described in Mark, chapter 11:
027Some people carpeted the road with their cloaks, while others spread brushwood which they had cut in the fields; and those who went ahead and the others who came behind shouted ‘Hosanna! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord.’
Traditionally the ‘brushwood’ has been considered to be palm, and in many churches small crosses made of palm, presumably date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), are distributed, but before these became common it was necessary in the British Isles and northern Europe to find a local plant to serve as ‘palm’.
Throughout England the twigs of goat willow (also known as pussy willow or sallow), Salix caprea, with male catkins were commonly used, and subsequently known as ‘palm’ [1]:
Sallow catkins and branches are the only plant material permitted in church during Lent. These are known as palm or pussy palm and represent the palm branches strewn on the road as Christ entered Jerusalem for the last time [2].
In Ireland cypress (Cupressus spp., or Chamaecyparis spp.) [3], or yew (Taxus baccata) were commonly used. Indeed, many Irish-speakers knew Palm Sunday as Domhnach an Iuir (Yew Sunday) [4]:
Yew tree branches are used in Catholic church ceremonies on Palm Sunday and afterwards distributed to the congregation. It may be worn and afterwards some is placed in the dwelling house and byres to bring good luck [5].
Goat willow seems to have been most widely used as palm throughout much of northern Europe, but in some places box (Buxus sempervirens) was commonly used. Thus at the French Catholic Church of Notre Dame de France, in Soho, London, box is blessed on Palm Sunday [6],* while at the Polish Catholic Church of Christ the King, in Balham, south London, young people sell bunches of box, sallow and daffodils (Narcissus) in the church’s forecourt on Palm Sunday.

1. J. Britten & R. Holland, A Dictionary of English Plant-names, 1886: 366; G.Grigson, The Englishman’s Flora, 1987: 258.
2. Wormshill, Kent, May 2003.
3. Personal observation, Dublin, May 1993 and May 1994.
4. K. Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972: 68.
5. Daingean, Co. Offaly, January 1985.
6. Personal observation, 8 April 1979.
7. Personal observation, 27 March 1983.

* The use of box at the French Catholic Church seems to have ceased; on Palm Sunday 2015 only standard palm crosses were available.

Images: main, box, Chinnor, Oxfordshire, September 2014; upper inset, palm attached to balcony of the Archbishop’s Palace, Toledo, Spain, August 2015 (olive, Olea europaea, seems to be favoured in more modest homes); lower inset, photograph of photograph apparently showing cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) being used on Palm Sunday, St Mary the Virgin Parish Church, Witney, Oxfordshire, April 2017.

Updated 26 April 2017.