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The Palms of Palm Sunday, The Pussy Willows of Dyngus Day

Pussy willows, which are among the first plants to bud in the spring, are often a part of Dyngus Day celebrations. Photo by Jill Eklund

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week in Christianity. It honors the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. Palm branches were waved in triumph at his presence and then placed along with cloaks in his path. In ancient times, palm branches were a symbol of goodness, well-being and victory. Today, they represent the victory of the spirit over bodily flesh. (https://bit.ly/2D6sGl8)

Thousands and thousands of palm leaves are handed out to faithful worshippers through-out the world on Palm Sunday. They will be waved, woven into delicate crosses and poked into a brother or sister’s arm. Then, when the services are over, many Catholics know the palms will be recycled into the ashes for the next year’s Ash Wednesday’s rituals. But, have you ever wondered where all those palm leaves come from? One harvester’s story started out in Florida when Thomas Sowell was a young boy trying to earn extra money.

Palms must grow in tropical and subtropical climates. There are more than 2,600 species growing all over the world. Sowell has been a palm harvester for more than five decades. He works to supply parishes across the United States and Canada with fresh palm leaves for their Palm Sunday services. The palmetto palms he harvests are wild. He partners with local ranchers and landowners to fill his orders. And, because of good stewardship and sound conservations measures, some of the trees being harvested are the same ones he harvested as a boy. (https://www.catholic.org/lent)

While most people know the role palms play in Palm Sunday, how many know about the role of pussy willows on Dyngus Day? Or even know what Dyngus Day is? I never did until I taught with a wonderful girl from Buffalo, and she introduced me to this fun Polish holiday. It celebrates the end of the Lenten season on the Monday after Easter. “It’s Mardi Gras in reverse,” says Todd Kniazuk of Buffalo.

The holiday’s roots come from the baptism of Polish Prince Mieszko I in 966 where the water represents the cleansing, fertility and purification of the soul. It has evolved into the boys soaking the girls with squirt guns and chasing them with pussy willows. Started by the Chopin Singing Society in 1961, the Dyngus Day celebration in Buffalo is now the biggest in the United States according to Newsweek Magazine, https://bit.ly/2UpKG4N. So, for Dyngus Day in Buffalo, where do all the pussy willows come from?

Pussy willows are the soft, fluffy silver or yellow catkins or petal-less flowering spikes of willows. They can grow as scrubs or trees and are one of the earliest signs of spring. Weather plays an important part in the harvesting of them. Warm temperatures early on can cause the willows to leaf out, and colder temperatures will prevent the buds from developing. In an article I found online, The Buffalo News stated that local florists got their pussy willows from small farmers from Niagara to Chautauqua Counties. I couldn’t find any stories about 12-year-olds trying to make some extra money from nature’s bounty, but I would hope that there are a few industrious youths out there helping with a family business.

Harvesting nature’s bounty can be rewarding if done correctly. Good techniques which ensure a future supply are essential. We need to learn to take enough for our needs and leave enough so we can come back again. Whether it’s harvesting palm leaves or cutting pussy willows, be a good steward, respect our environment and enjoy the gifts nature brings.

Enjoy the upcoming holidays. See you on the trails and back on the water.

Susan M. Songster Weaver is retired teacher, nature lover and longtime CWC volunteer and supporter.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 716-664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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