Mad for marula fruit: facts about the marula tree
BY: Megan Colborne
As a field guide, you need to be prepared for every type of question. From “what is a marula tree?” to “are African animals getting drunk from ripe marula fruit?” Whatever the question, we’ve got you covered on all things marula.
Once you’ve completed your training at Bushwise Field Guides and are a fully qualified field guide, you will be responsible for the experiences of your guests. This is why it’s important to have a wealth of knowledge regarding fauna and flora.
What is a marula tree?
The marula tree is a green, leafy tree that is resistant to drought so that each tree still manages to produce plenty of marula fruit during dry seasons.
Known as “the king of African trees” the marula tree is a medium-sized tree standing tall at between 9 and 18 metres tall. This single-stemmed marula tree is found in 29 countries. Female trees bear up to 500 kilograms of fruit each year, while the male marula tree puts on a delicate floral display instead.
Yes, that’s right, there are both a male and female marula trees.
The marula tree is dioecious, which basically means that each tree has a specific sex. This led to the traditional belief that drinking an infusion made from the bark of a male tree would lead to the birth of a boy, while drinking a bark infusion from the female tree would result in the birth of a girl.
The juicy marula fruit belongs to the same family as the mango and so it has similar properties. It has a yellow peel, white flesh and a large kernel, or pip, in its centre.
History of the marula tree
With a history dating back thousands of years, the marula tree has outlived many other trees, with archaeological evidence showing the tree being used as a food source as far back as 10,000 years BCE.
Over time, many legends have developed in Africa surrounding the marula tree and marula fruit. Local people began to refer to the marula tree as “the elephant tree” as they witnessed elephants travel far and wide to feast on the juicy marula fruit.
Because of its history and importance in Africa, the marula tree is now protected by law in South Africa.
Uses and benefits of marula
Original photo: “Marula (Sclerocarya birrea) fruits on the ground”by Bernard DUPONT is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Nearly every part of the marula tree can be used in some way.
The bark of this powerful marula tree contains an antihistamine, is used to prevent malaria, and is also effective in the treatment of stomach issues. Chewing on the bark can also aid in facilitating digestion.
As for the kernels of the marula fruit, when roasted they are known as the “food of kings”, and are regarded as a delicacy. The leaves of the marula tree are also used as a spice and in a salad dressing.
The fruits of the marula tree can be eaten, either raw or cooked, and are commonly used to produce jam. When left to ferment, marula fruit can be used to produce various powerful alcoholic drinks.
In Swaziland, this alcohol is used to make a home-made beer called Buganu. In Namibia, Ombike is produced, and in Mozambique the fermented marula fruit is used to produce a wine called Ucanhe.
However, none of these can outrank the internationally known cream liqueur, Amarula. Amarula is produced in South Africa using the marula fruit, alcohol and cream. Amarula is one of the best selling products in the world in this category!
Can elephants get drunk from eating too much marula fruit?
If tourists on your safari trip ask about African animals getting drunk from ripe marula fruit, don’t be alarmed.
This comes from the legend that elephants can get drunk after eating fruit that has fermented on the ground or even inside the stomach of the elephant.
So, does marula fruit make elephants drunk? While the marula fruit is an elephant’s favourite and this would make a great story, scientists have debunked this as a myth, so you’re unlikely to see a drunken elephant leaning against a marula tree for support.