The Marula fruit has a number of unusual traits and uses. Popularly 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.
The Science of the Sclerocarya Birrea
The scientific name of the Marula fruit tree is Sclerocarya Birrea. The nutritious little fruit is the size of a small plum, but it packs a punch.
The skin of the marula fruit is incredibly high in vitamin C, at eight times more than an orange. The nut in the centre is also high in protein. Evidence shows that the Marula fruit was a very important part of the diet of ancient peoples in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana.
The tree is indigenous to Southern Africa. It was spread further into West Africa and Madagascar by bantu tribes. They took the fruit with them when they migrated, because it is such a rich source of vitamins and minerals.
Also, animals spread the scope of this tree by eating the tasty fruits and then defecating the seeds. Wonderful fertilizer to start out a seed’s chances at life.
The Marula Tree
Interestingly, Marula trees are gendered. There are male and female trees, each with their own type of flowers. This means that they cannot self-fertilize, they have to be fertilized by the pollen of the opposite gender. Only the female tree can bear fruit.
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 also has wide-spread branches, and the fruits ripen between December and March, the summer months of Southern Africa.
The Benefits and Uses of the Marula Fruit
These fruits have a socio-economic importance to many people groups, from Kwazulu-Natal to Ethiopia. The fruit and bark of the tree has many popular uses, including medicinal uses.. Even the green leaves are eaten to relieve heartburn.
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 it’s alcohol percentage is higher, while the taste is less sweet, more sour. The third and final day’s beer is called Lutanda. It is, of course, the strongest, and only for the brave.
So there’s a beer for every taste! Marula beer is very popular in rural Southern African populations. In fact, it is 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 it is women who 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 is then delivered to processing plants where everything, including the fruit pulp, pips, kernels and kernel oil are extracted from the fruit. It is then stored for processing throughout the year and used for various purposes, including other alcoholic drinks, 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, like elephants, giraffes, baboons and warthogs.
Of course, the picture of drunk wild animals staggering about and behaving uncharacteristically (but very recognisably for those of us who have enjoyed a bit too much) 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 fruit at the foot of a Marula tree.
The animals then proceed to stagger and behave like drunkards. And 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 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.
More Gifts of the Marula Tree
The fermented fruit might not inebriate animals like we thought , but it is used not only to make traditional beer, but also to create a delicious liqueur for humans. A decent consolation prize, we think.
Amarula (and more recently, one or two lesser known brands) is a cream based Marula liqueur, similar to the popular Irish brand, Bailey’s.
So if you’ve ever wondered what the animals are after, give it a go. Or even more idyllically, enjoy it on a ‘safari drives’ with the elephants. 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.