This blog about marula trees was written by Aldo Louw. Special topic blogs are written by Bushwise students during their course, and all facts included are based on their research.
Read time: 3 mins
An African sunset, sipping on an Amarula liqueur somewhere in the beautiful breathtaking bush on a game reserve in South Africa. This might be the picture that pops into your mind when the name marula is mentioned. But there is so much more about this tree than the memorable Amarula liqueur that is made from the tree’s fruit.
The marula tree stands 18m tall and the bark is a greyish colour. On the young branches, the bark has a smooth appearance, while on the older branches it appears to be flaky in patches.
The leaves are unevenly compounded with 7 to 13 pairs of leaflets plus a terminal one that is near the end of each branch. Even though the young trees are frost-sensitive, marula trees are drought-resistant and one of the fastest growing trees in South Africa , growing up to 1.5 m per year.
These trees can be found in the Lowveld and Kruger National Park. They prefer to grow in the savanna or bushveld. Tall grass, baobabs and fever trees can be found growing close to them.
Cultural significance and traditional beliefs
This beautiful tree’s history extends back to more or less 10,000 years and there is evidence that even then the fruit and nut-like kernels were an important food source. The tree has a specific sex (deciduous and also dioecious) which led to many traditional African beliefs about the tree. One such belief is that using the powder of the bark or the flowers to make a tea from either the male or female tree influences the gender of the baby you will have.
The marula tree is quite a useful tree as it has so many uses. The most obvious – apart from the tasty liquor – being that it can act as both a shelter and a food provider for animals and humans alike. But let’s take a look at some of the more interesting uses for this tree:
The inner bark off the tree can be used to make a decent rope, the light reddish brown wood makes lovely furniture and the skin of the fruit can even be burnt to use as a substitute for coffee and snuff.
The flowers are 50 to 80mm long sprays with sexes on separate trees.
Apart from the Amarula liqueur, the fruit is also used to make a semi-sweet wine, beer and even jams and jelly.
This led to a very funny story of elephants and baboons getting drunk when eating the marula fruit which has fermented while lying on the ground. This was proven to be a myth by scientists, therefore no elephants or baboons will soon be seen walking funny and experiencing a hangover.
The fruit are yellow and fleshy with a large stone and ripens from January to March. It has 4 times more vitamin C than an orange and is a good source of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
The seed from the fruit consists of 2-3 nuts that are rich in oil and protein, that can be eaten either raw or roasted.
The oil from the nuts makes an excellent skin treatment.
Cattle and game benefit from the leaves, bark and fruit.
A tea can be made with the bark from the tree to treat diarrhoea.
Chewing the leaves can reduce heartburn.
Using the bark in a brandy tincture can help as a preventative for malaria.
The inner bark has antihistaminic properties and can be used against insect bites or even those hairy caterpillars that can burn you when accidentally gets in contact with your skin.
An extract from the leaves works wonders for abscesses and burns.
The marula tree is the ultimate multi-tasker in the African wilderness. From giving animals and humans a place to live and find a snack, to dishing out remedies for stuff like tummy troubles and insect bites, this tree does it all. No wonder it’s called the “Tree of Life.” So, next time you sip on that Amarula drink, remember, there’s a whole lot more to this tree than meets the eye.
Deepen your appreciation for the natural wonders of South Africa’s wilderness by joining us out there at Bushwise Field Guides.