Palm Sunday

Posted on by Emily Beech

This weekend millions of Christians worldwide will be celebrating Palm Sunday and using thousands of palm leaves in the process.


"Palm Tree in the Sun" by Wildcat Dunny - Flickr: Palm Tree. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Palm Tree in the Sun” by Wildcat Dunny – Flickr: Palm Tree. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

But what is a palm?

  • Palms are genetically more closely related to grasses than an oak tree.
  • Palms are a group of plants with around 2585 species found across the world.
  • Palms can be classified in both the Arecaceae and Palmae families interchangeably.
  • The only continent that doesn’t have any palms is Antarctica.

What is the state of the world’s palms?

  • 20% of the world’s palms are currently listed on the IUCN Red List with 106 assessed as Critically Endangered and 96 Endangered.
  • 82% of Madagascar’s endemic palms are considered threatened by the IUCN.
  • Among the threats to these palms: habitat destruction, overexploitation and fire.
Arecaceae; Euterpe precatoria, Dr William Baker, Kew

Euterpe precatoria. Dr. William J. Baker, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew/Palmweb

What are palms used for?

  • 50 million tons of palm oil is produced every year. Palm oil is found in lipstick, shampoo and foods such as margarine and ice-cream. Often tropical forest is cleared to make way for oil palm plantations.
  • Palms are the source of many commercial products such as building materials, wine, oils and waxes as well as foods such as dates and coconuts.
  • Palms are often grown ornamentally worldwide, although they can be very expensive to buy. In the US there have even been problems with ‘palm rustling’, people stealing palm trees worth $20,000 each from the side of the road (read more here)
  • Palm leaves symbolise victory in Christianity and palms were used by the Romans to reward the winners of games and those that returned from war.

Some of our favourite threatened palms

The loneliest palm

One of the world’s most threatened palms is Hyophorbe amaricaulis. Only one individual survives in the Curepipe Botanic Gardens on Mauritius where it has lived for over 50 years. It fruits and flowers every year but it never produces viable seeds as its male and female flowers open out of sync.

The tallest palm

The Quindío wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) is a Critically Endangered endemic palm of Colombia. Every year thousands of its leaves were used as part of the Palm Sunday celebrations. A ban was introduced to prevent this overexploitation of the tree and protect the species from extinction.

Click here for a full profile

The desert palm

The Argoun Palm is a Critically Endangered palm which lives in the Nubian Desert in oases. It was commonly left in Egyptian tombs in the time of the Pharaohs as an offering for the afterlife.

Click here for a full profile

medemia _nakhila oasis - Credit - Haitham Ibrahim

Argoun Palm. Photo: Haitham Ibrahim

Edit: Updated on 28/03/2015. Arecaceae and Palmae family names can be used interchangeably. Palms are genetically closely related to grasses, however they are not classified as giant grasses as suggested by some sources.

Written by Emily Beech

Emily is a Tree Red List Manager at Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), working on the Global Tree Assessment, managing conservation assessment projects across the world, including in Madagascar, Central America and Oceania.


  1. Richard Kimbowa on

    Phoenix reclinata is another palm in Uganda and across East Africa that has been overharvested in Uganda and requires immediate attention by replanting and restricting removal of all leaves (for crafts and occasions like plam Sunday). The major threats include demand for posts useful for fencing of residential and industrial plots; clearance of wetlands the habitat for this tree; unplanned conversion of wetlands due to agricultural activities favoring water demanding crops like sugar cane; municipal and industrial refuse disposal in wetlands; charcoal burning as its charcoal is rated high amongst dealers

  2. Bill Baker on

    Nice blog and delighted you found Palmweb useful. A couple of accuracy issues made me flinch. Palms are really not giant grass. Sure they are closer to grasses than oaks, but that doesn’t make them grasses, or gingers or bananas, which are also in the same major group as palms. The interesting point is the way palms have found ways to become trees, despite all the limitations of being monocots, which are usually floppy, herb type things. And they are amazingly successful trees – 6 of the 10 commonest trees in the Amazon are palms, for example, accounting for over 20 billion stems – incredible! The real giant grasses are the bamboos, of course. Also, the family name Palmae has not been replaced by Arecaceae; both names are in use as legitimate alternatives under the nomenclatural code. I am so very sorry to be picky; palms just happen to be my thing!


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