Why Palm Ashes?
Ash has been used since biblical time to signify mourning. Tearing one's garment and putting ash on one's head is mentioned a number of times in the Bible. 1 Samuel 4:12 describes how a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh, his clothes torn and dust on his head."
Again in 2 Samuel we read a number of times where ash is used: "On the third day a man arrived from Saul's camp, with his clothes torn and with dust on his head. When he came to David, he fell to the ground to pay him honor." (2 Samuel 1:20)
"Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went." (2 Samuel 13:19)
"When David arrived at the summit, where people used to worship God, Hushai the Arkite was there to meet him, his robe torn and dust on his head." (2 Samuel 15:32)
We also know that in Esther Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. "When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry" (Esther 4:1 RSV)
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Ash used in other religious services
Judaism also uses ashes as a symbol of mourning. The Fast of Tisha B'Av commemorates the destruction of the temples (1st temple destroyed 421 B.C.E, 2nd temple destroyed in 69 C.E) in Jerusalem and are observed during the summer. The fast is started the evening beforehand with a traditional meal called Seuda Mafseket. The meal traditionally consists of bread, hard boiled eggs and water. During the meal participants dip their bread and or egg in the ashes.
Some Jews have a custom of placing ashes on the head of a groom at his wedding in remembrance of the destroyed Temple. Psalms 137:5-6 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy. The purpose is to remember that even at a joyous time like a wedding happiness is not complete without the rebuilt Temple and Jews still living in exile.
Zoroastrians used to put a mark on their foreheads with ash before approaching the sacred fire in their fire temples.
In Hinduism, Vibhuti (also spelled Vibhooti), is the sacred ash used in religious worship. The ash is connected with Lord Shiva and is put on the forehead of followers to show a "third eye" which is necessary to for mystic insight. As in Christianity, it reminds one of their mortality. The Hindu ritual of cremation returns the deceased to ash. Ash also reminds followers of the story of Shiva, who burned Kama, the god of desire when he tried to shake Shiva's attempt at obtaining divine truth.
Why does it take so much palm to make a tiny amount of ash?
Almost any plant is about 90-98% water when fresh. "Dry" plants are frequently still around 40-50% water. There is a very large reduction in weight/volume when the plants are burned. When the plants are burned the carbohydrates and lots of the protein are burned, leaving maybe the ~0.5-1% mineral content, and maybe some tough fibers. It could take 225 pounds of plant material to end up with one pound of ash.
Do it yourself - CAREFULLY!
Some people choose to make the ash themselves. How difficult can it be given that people have been doing it for thousands of years. Dry palm fronds may ignite easily and care should be taken to burn them in a safe place by someone who knows how to burn them. Do not put them in your oven.
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."