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Guide to the tree species of Southern Africa

Marula / Maroela - Sclerocarya birrea
Travel Writer: EcoTravel Africa  

Anacardiaceae - Mango family
SA Tree no 360

Photographer: EcoTravel Africa 

The Marula is a handsome, medium sized spreading tree of wooded savannah, and belongs to the mango (Anacardiaceae) family. It favours sandy soils in the warmer, eastern parts of the continent, where it may grow up to 15 metres in height.

Few African trees are held in such high esteem by indigenous peoples, for the Marula has a multitude of uses in terms of diet and culture. The abundant crop of fruit - high in vitamin C - is the source of jelly and jam as well as the basis for a potent liquor. This has been commercialised in recent times as 'Amarula Cream' - one of South Africa's most successful exports.

In addition to the flesh of the fruit - a single tree can produce over 10 000 - the oil-rich seeds or 'nuts' are also sought after by people and a variety of animals. The Zulu crush and boil the seeds, skim off the oil and use it as a therapeutic body massage and the Venda people are said to use the oil to preserve meat. The seeds are difficult to extract from the stone-like kernel, but the Cape Parrot is able to do so with its strong beak.

Although various herbivores, including elephant and giraffe, browse on Marula leaves, it is not the most popular foliage. In some years, the larvae of a nondescript moth may infest individual trees, feeding voraciously on the leaves, and inhibiting the development of flowers and fruit.

Elephants are fanatical about the grey bark of Marulas and - when they occur at high densities - can eliminate entire communities of these valuable trees through destructive ring-barking.

Jam, jelly, beer and wine
In late summer (February and March) each year, the female trees produce pale green fruits - oval in shape and about 35mm in diameter. These fruits fall and ripen on the ground, turning a waxy yellow colour and taking on a distinctive sharp, sweet scent.

People collect large quantities of ripe fruits, with different cultural groups having a variety of uses for them. Making jam and alcohol seems to be common to virtually all people living alongside these trees. The jam is made in the traditional manner, while beer or wine is produced by soaking fruit in water in an airtight container for two days, then squeezing out the juice of the softened fruits, and closing the pot or bucket for a further four days. The sour drink is said - by some - to have 'the kick of a mule'! It takes about 200 fruits to make a single litre of alcohol.

Due to its well-known alcoholic capacities, rumours abound as to the Marula's intoxicating effects on wild animals. While elephants and baboons both relish the fruit, the former would need to consume prodigious amounts of already fermenting fruit for it to have even the mildest impact, and since these huge animals drink up to 160 litres of water a day, there would anyway be a major diluting effect. Interestingly, examination of fresh elephant dung show that less than ten percent of Marula fruits are actually 'processed' in any way - most fruit passes through the digestive tract intact.

Observations on baboons suggest that they prefer fresh Marula fruit and because the pulp is digested and the seeds passed within a 24-hour period, fermentation is impossible. The infamous scene in a popular movie from the 1970s - Jamie Uys' 'Beautiful People', which depicted a troop of obviously drunken baboons in and under a Marula tree, was clearly man-induced and would today be outlawed in terms of animal cruelty.

In a bid to influence the sex of an unborn child, the Venda believe that a preparation of powdered bark from a female tree will produce a baby girl, while that of a male tree is taken should a boy be desired. Determining its sex is easy when the Marula loses its leaves in winter, exposing its stubby, finger-like branch tips.

Due to its many uses and value, the Marula tree is usually spared by woodcutters in most rural areas. When one sees Marula trees being cut down, it is a clear indication that a community is under pressure.

While Marula trees seldom grow in dense groups, once one is found, other trees are usually in the vicinity. The tree is deciduous, standing bare for several months in the year; apex broadly tapering, finally abruptly and narrowly attenuate; base broadly tapering to rounded, asymmetric; margin entire.

It is a single-trunked, high-branching tree, with a characteristic semi-circular canopy, and growing to a height of up to 7 - 17 m, with moderate density. The bark often peels in conspicuous, rounded depressions, exposing the smooth pink-brown under surface. Leaves hang from the end of thickened twigs that stand out almost like fingers during winter. Marula fruit is often seen under the female trees during January and February. The Marula is a protected species in the Republic of South Africa.

Links with animals - Mosquitoes often breed in the hollows of the tree. The larvae of eight species of butterfly feed on the foliage. Several types of parasitic plants grow on the marula. The fruit is eaten by a wide variety of animals such as elephant, monkey, baboon, kudu, duiker, impala and zebra. The foliage and bark are eaten by elephant. Game could become intoxicated after eating fermenting fruit

Human uses - Water that is stored in large quantities in the roots, is tapped during times of drought. The fruit, which is very tasty and rich in Vitamin C, is used to make beer, jelly and jam. Seed kernels are rich in oil and protein. The bark is traditionally used for the treatment of malaria, dysentery and diarrhoea.In some cultures the tree plays an important part in marriage rituals, and has an integral role in fertility rites,. The marula is particularly sacred in the Lowveld.

Leaves - Compound, alternate, elliptic, with a smooth margin. There are three pairs of opposite leaflets and a terminal leaflet near the end of the branches.
(Leaf 150 mm; leaflet: 60 x 30 mm) The colour above is dark green, while a much paler bluish-green below. The young leaves, or coppice leaves toothed; petiolules and petioles long and slender and, like the rachis, often tinged with pink.

Flowers - The floral parts in fours to fives; sepals red; petals yellow and small. Male and female flowers are borne on same or separate trees, August to December. (Male: spray 50 - 80 mm; female: 30 mm)

Fruit - The oval, plumb-sized fruit ripens from January to March, and drops while it is still green, after which it ripens on the ground, Each fruit has three seeds and the holes of the three kernels can be seen in the woody stone, visible November to March. (40 mm)

Best places to see the Marula / Maroela in Southern Africa:

The Marula / Maroela is found in the Kruger National Park in the Mixed Bushwillow Woodlands, Pretoriuskop Sourveld, Sabie Crocodile Thorn Thickets, Thorn Veld, Knob Thorn / Marula Savannah, Riverine Communities, Lebombo Mountain Bushveld & Olifants Rugged Veld ecozones.

Tree species of Southern Africa    >> Printable Tree List <<  
South African Trees    >> Printable Tree List <<
The Plant Kingdom (Plantae)
Wildlife - Fauna & Flora of Southern Africa

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Learn more about the Marula / Maroela - Sclerocarya birrea with Wildlife Campus. Course content includes in-depth information about Marula / Maroela habitat, distribution, ecology...

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Southern Africa has many top Game / Nature Reserves, and is home to many of the mammals of southern Africa. Numerous wildlife safari and tour companies operate guided tours to Southern Africa. Popular adventure travel activities in Southern Africa include: horse riding safaris, elephant back safaris, mountain biking, birding, wilderness walking trails, science safaris and volunteering especially for GAP year students.
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Reptiles : Snakes Herbaceous Plants
Invertebrates Fungi : Mushrooms
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