The Marula fruit has a number of unusual traits and uses. Commonly known as the fruit that gets elephants and humans drunk, we can see why it would be a fan favorite.
We’ll explore the many reasons why this is such an important and beloved fruit in Africa, and why the rest of the world should adopt it as their own.
Keep reading and all your questions surrounding “what is Marula fruit?” will be answered. And if you want to see a Marula tree up close, book a Botswana Safari, where you’ll drive along rugged roads dotted with African Marula trees.
The Science of the Sclerocarya Birrea (Marula Trees)
The scientific name of the Marula fruit tree is Sclerocarya Birrea. The nutritious little marula fruit is the size of a small plum, but it packs a punch and is also fondly known as the elephant tree as rumored to be an elephant’s favorite fruit.
The skin of the marula fruit is incredibly high in vitamin C, eight times more than an orange. The marula nut in the center is also high in protein. Evidence shows that the Marula fruit was a very important part of the diet of ancient people in South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana.
The marula tree fruit and tree is indigenous to Southern Africa. It was spread further into West Africa and Madagascar by Bantu tribes. They took marula fruits with them when they migrated because it is such a rich source of vitamins and minerals.
Also, animals spread the scope of this marula tree by eating the tasty fruits and then defecating the marula seeds. Wonderful fertilizer to start out a seed’s chances at life.
Interesting Facts About the Marula Tree
Interestingly, the Marula tree is gendered, making it a deciduous tree. There are male and female trees, each with its own type of flowers. This means that they cannot self-fertilize, they have to be fertilized by the pollen of the opposite gender.
The male tree cannot bear fruit, only the female tree can. Eaten fresh, marula fruit tastes both sweet and sour and is a tart fruit rich in antioxidants.
About 6% of all flowering plants have this characteristic. It allows the Marula tree to reduce harmful mutations. The Marula tree is then able to stay healthy through the ways that it has adapted and evolved to survive.
The Marula tree grows up to 18m (59 feet) tall. It is characterized by a grey mottled bark. It is a leafy tree with wide-spread branches, and the fruits ripen between December and March, the summer months of South Africa and surrounding countries.
If you would like to see this fascinating tree and much more, go on a half-day guided walking tour in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. Or, if you are in South Africa, a walking safari in the Kruger National Park will make for an unforgettable wildlife experience. You’ll be left in awe of all the sights and sounds of the African bush.
The Benefits and Uses of Marula Fruits
You may be wondering “what is marula fruit good for?” and, well there are loads of things actually. From creating delicious alcoholic drinks to medicinal uses and benefiting a community of women, this fruit is an important asset to Southern Africa.
These fruits have socio-economic importance to many groups, from Kwazulu-Natal to Ethiopia. The fruit and bark of the tree have many popular uses, including medicinal uses. Even the green leaves are eaten to relieve heartburn. Fermented marula fruit can also be used productively.
But let’s look at the most popular uses.
Marula Alcohol – A Traditional Beer
Marula beer is one of the favorite benefits of this tart fruit. The making of this beer is a much-appreciated skill set, and each batch can taste different, depending on which trees it was harvested from, the age (in days, not years), and the technique of the woman who makes it.
Because the Marula fruit ferments so quickly, there are three different kinds of Marula beer, each made a day apart to get different alcohol percentages and tastes.
The first day’s Marula beer is called Tuvhu. It has the lowest alcohol percentage, and it is sweet and tasty. The second day’s beer is Neshana, and its alcohol percentage is higher, while the taste is less sweet and more sour. The third and final day’s beer is called Lutanda. It is, of course, the strongest, and only for the brave.
More Marula Drink Benefits
Not only is there a beer for every taste, but this popular drink in Southern Africa also has some more benefits. It’s believed by some to increase the male sex drive. Reason enough for some!
Also, it provides some very necessary income to the women who make and sell it. As women are the creators of this wonderous beer, they are also the main benefactors.
Other Marula Fruit Uses
The Marula fruit is a good source of income for struggling rural communities, beyond the beer. The fruit is harvested off of their communal land by members of the community.
It’s then delivered to processing plants where everything, including the fruit pulp, pips, kernels, and kernel oil are extracted from the fruit. It’s then stored for processing throughout the year and used for various purposes, including other alcoholic beverages, and cosmetics.
Drunk Animals in Africa – True or False?
There is a very entertaining bit of folklore based on the Marula fruit. The story goes that the ripe fruit falls from the branches of the Marula tree. It then ferments on the ground for a while before being eaten by wild animals, resulting in drunken elephants, giraffes, baboons, and warthogs.
Of course, the picture of drunk wild animals staggering about and behaving uncharacteristically as a result of eating the fruit from these African trees is very funny. So perhaps we all want to believe this tale of debauchery.
However, the tale is unfortunately untrue. Jamie Uys made the story popular (originally stemming from Zulu folklore) in his 1974 documentary “Beautiful People”. The footage showed elephants and various other animals gorging themselves on the rotten fruit at the foot of a Marula tree.
The animals then proceed to stagger and behave like drunkards. The narrator makes us all believe that the Marula fruit is nature’s own liquor and a local favorite amongst these deviant animals.
Unfortunately, none of this is true, as the producers of this documentary actually soaked the fruit in alcohol before filming, causing the animals to get drunk and behave abnormally.
While the fruit does indeed ferment quickly, the elephants would need to eat a huge amount of the fermented Marulas, and it’s unlikely that they would ever do this. Also, the other animals that favor this fruit generally eat it fresh and ripe off the branches, instead of rotting on the ground.
But elephants don’t need alcohol to be entertaining. See them on an elephant safari to take in their majestic and often amusing antics.
Getting Drunk on the Marula Fruit Tree (Not Amarula Fruit Tree)
The fermented fruit might not inebriate animals as we thought, but in addition to the traditional beer created from Marula tree fruit, it also creates a delicious cream liqueur for humans. A decent consolation prize, we think.
There is no such thing as an Amarula tree, despite the popular cream liqueur made from marula fruits. Amarula (and more recently, one or two lesser-known brands) is a cream-based Marula liqueur. The taste is similar to Bailey’s, a popular Irish cream-based liqueur.
So if you’ve ever wondered what the animals are after, give it a go. Or even more idyllically, enjoy it on a safari drive with the elephants in the Kruger National Park. It is certainly a South African favorite for a reason.
Final Thoughts on the Marula Fruit
Clearly, this is no ordinary grocery store classic. This fruit has socio-economic importance within communities, and it provides a much-needed source of income for those who most need it.
Also, the fruit is a great source of vitamins, minerals, and protein for human beings and animals alike. Whether or not the Marula holds entertainment value in getting animals drunk, we are still a big fan of this little fruit.