The Marula tree is a deciduous tree that grows up to 18m tall and is found in various types of woodlands favouring a sandy soils and sometimes sandy loam soil. It is a well-known component of the vegetation type known as ‘Bushveld’ or savannah and is also found on forest margins at low to medium altitude. The trunk is erect and has spreading, rounded crown.
The leaves are compound with 3 – 7 (sub-) opposite pairs of leaflets plus a terminal one. The leaflets are slightly asymmetric and have entire margins, but the leaflets of juvenile growth are distinctly toothed. The Marula trees are dioecious, this means that there are male and female trees, where the male trees produce the pollen and the female trees produce the fruit. They produce flowers from September to November which are deep pink and white.
The fruit are fleshy and almost spherical that ripens to yellow after falling to the ground. It has a large, woody stone that has two or three seeds.
The Marula tree is widely distributed from Kwazulu Natal in the South, all the way up the Ethiopia in the North.
The genus name of the Marula is Sclerocarya and is derived from the Greek words ‘skleros’ and ‘karyon’ which mean ‘hard’ and ‘nut’. The specific name, birrea, is derived from the tree’s common name in Senegal which is ‘birr’.
The fruit of the Marula was a dietary necessity since ancient times as the fruit and nut are rich in minerals and vitamins, with exceptionally high concentrations of vitamin C.
The skin of the fruit can be boiled to make a drink or burnt and used as a substitute for coffee. One of the most well-known uses for the fruit of the Marula is in the production of alcoholic beverages, such as an intoxicating drink known as ubuganu and, the famous and commercially sold, Amarula Cream liqueur.
The fruit can be used to make juice as well as jam.
Inside the fruit one can find two very small tasty nuts that are high in protein and the oils of these nuts can be used as a skin cosmetic.
The wood is soft so is brilliant for carving.
The outer bark of the Marula tree can be used to make a light brown dye and the inner bark can be used to make rope.
The green leaves can aid in the relief of heartburn when eaten.
The bark contains antihistamines and can also be used for cleansing by soaking the bark in boiling water and inhaling the steam.
Dysentery and diarrhoea can be treated by crushing the bark into a pulp, mixing it with cold water and finally drinking this concoction.
The bark can also be used as a malaria prophylactic.
Due to the trees being dioecious (have separate genders) it is a belief among the Venda people that an infusion of the bark can be used to determine the gender of an unborn child. If it is a male child that the couple would like to have then an infusion of the bark from the male tree is consumed and if it is a daughter that they request then an infusion from the female tree is used. If the child is born and it is the opposite sex to what they wanted then it is said that the child is very special because it was able to defy the spirits.
The tree is highly respected by the local people because of the food and shade that they provide and the tree will never be removed when clearing fields.
Importance in nature:
The leaves and fruit are eaten by a number of herbivorous mammals including warthog, elephant bushbuck, kudu, monkeys and baboons, and is said to drive elephants crazy when they eat the fallen fruit that have been fermenting in the hot summer sun.
Elephants strip the bark to eat the nutritious inner bark.
It is a food plant for a number of butterflies and moths.
The Saturnid Caterpillar (emperor moth) congregates on the Marula tree to feed on the leaves and is collected by the locals who roast and eat them (amacimbi).
The tree is also frequented by the larvae of the Cerambycid (longhorn) wood-boring beetle.
On occasion the trees will be stripped of leaves by caterpillars during mid-summer which cover the tree in a silvery web.
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