The Phyto-Philes - Marula

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Willem says: 'The Phyto-Philes are for plant lovers of every size and shape, colour and flavour. As with my Colours of Wildlife column, I'll be featuring one species per article, illustrated with sketches, paintings, and/or photos. Over time I hope to be showcasing the amazing diversity of weird and wonderful plants that occur in South Africa, while also from time to time looking at the flora of other countries. While featuring many spectacular species, I'll not be neglecting the smaller, more humble kinds that are nevertheless fascinating in their own right.'

Marula by Willem

This is one of South Africa's iconic trees – the Marula, Sclerocarya birrea. Its fruit are used for making the well-known Amarula liqueur. But the tree and its fruit are valuable for many other reasons as well. It grows in savannah and dry woodland throughout Africa as well as in Madagascar. It can grow into a large and handsome tree with an open, wide-spreading crown, reaching 18 m/60 ft in height with a trunk over a metre/yard in diameter.

The Marula is a member of the Anacardiaceae, the family that includes well-known species such as the Mango as well as Cashews and Pistachio nuts and Sumachs, including Poison Sumach, Poison Ivy and Poison Oaks. In Africa this family is very diverse with the genus Rhus (the local members now sometimes separated into Searsia) being especially huge. There is just one species of Marula though. In South Africa it is found from Kwazulu-Natal northwards into Mpumalanga, Gauteng, Northwest and Limpopo provinces. It is often the biggest trees present, because in rural areas the people will leave it alone because of its valuable fruit, while they will cut down almost every other tree for firewood. Marula trees will also be left standing when land is cleared for crops.

I know Marula trees very well. They grow abundantly in and around Polokwane. The municipality plants them in public parks. When I was a kid I used to go into the 'veld' with friends a lot, and when the trees were fruiting we would climb into them and pick them, often eating them while sitting in the tree! We'd also pick them up from under the trees if they weren't rotten or too dirty. You can see the size of a marula in my drawing. The marula has a soft rind which easily peels clear from the fruit … but there's also a layer of flesh on its inside which you'd scrape off with your teeth. There's a thin layer of whitish fruit pulp around the large stone, and this pulp has long fibers through it like those of a mango. You'd pop the fruit in your mouth and then suck the juice until only the fibrous mass and the stone was left. Mangos have a very pleasant sweet-sour taste. We'd discard the stone but actually there's more tastiness inside it – a nut! But it's hard to get to. There are two or three hard 'plugs' that pop open when the seed dries out or after it has passed through an animal's digestive tract but otherwise are difficult to remove. But rodents know exactly where these plugs are and gnaw them open to get at the kernel. Marula nuts are rich in oil, which can be used as a preservative, and also protein. But as a kid I didn't eat the nuts, only the sweet fruit.

My mother also made us Marula jelly. My friends and I would get bags and then gather as many fruits as we could. My mom would boil out the juice and discard the fibrous pulp and the stones. She'd add sugar and then cook the juice. It is rich in pectin and turns into a fairly solid, amber-coloured jelly which is delicious spread on bread. It is also nutritious, marulas containing proportionately four times as much vitamin C as orange juice. While the jam was cooking, a light foamy scum would form on the surface and my mom would periodically ladle it off and put it into a saucer. It would dry into a sticky spongy stuff which I loved to eat!

Animals also love Marula fruit. As I've said some rodents target the seeds, and parrots are able to open them to get at the kernels as well, but a great many more animals go for the fruit. Monkeys, baboons and large birds will pick them off the trees, but when they fall to the ground just about everything will scarf them up. One interesting thing I've seen is marulas in elephant dung which have barely been digested at all! The elephants swallow them whole of course … but then this specific one was passing them whole as well, the fruit skins still intact … little good it did the elephant eating them! But perhaps this elephant had a bit of diarrhea and other elephants will digest them more completely. Other animals will in fact chew them, perhaps sucking them as well to get a taste of the juice.

What does, however, NOT happen in nature is this. This scene comes from the Jamie Uys movie 'Beautiful People' (sometimes known as 'Animals are Beautiful People'). It shows a bunch of animals eating marulas and then getting drunk of the fermented juice in their bellies. Sorry but no. This is a complete fabrication! An animal will have to consume something like 25% of its own bodyweight of naturally-fermented Marula juice in order to get drunk … that would be a big elephant eating over a full ton of the stuff! What actually happened here is that: 1) the movie-maker used some footage of animals behaving a bit goofily – which they will do spontaneously from time to time and 2) deliberately giving alcohol to some of the animals, most probably the baboons. With creative 'editing', splicing together all these bits the move-maker then made it seem as if the animals got drunk from the fruit. There is a species that actually consumes a large amount of alcohol in their diet, the Asian pen-tailed tree shrew Ptilocercus lowii… but it does not get drunk at all, its metabolism effectively coping with the alcohol. In nature, intoxication is NOT a good idea … any drunk critter is likely to get caught and eaten in short order.

It is true that nice alcoholic drinks can be made from Marulas. The liqueur is a modern invention but since time immemorial people have been brewing beer from the juice. But here in South Africa marula juice can also be bought as a sweet drink like orange and other fruit juice – it is very tasty.

Marula nuts can be eaten raw or roasted or cooked with porridge. Getting the nuts from the hard stones is, as I've said, something needing a lot of skill. Locals in South Africa have traditionally taught these skills and in the Phalaborwa region all women used to wear a necklace the pendant of which was an instrument called a modukulo which was a device for extracting marula nuts. These have also been found in ancient archaeological digs proving the historical importance of the fruit to the people.

Recently there have been many experiments with planting Marula trees in orchards, even in Israel! A single tree at the age of twelve years has been noted to yield 500 kg/1100 lbs of fruits per season. In South Africa Marula jelly is made on an industrial scale and commercially bottled and sold.

Apart from the fruit Marula trees have many more uses. Marula leaves are good browse for antelopes, giraffes, elephants and black rhinos. Elephants will sometimes eat the bark as well. A decoction of the bark is used by humans for dysentery and diarrhea. It's also taken to prevent Malaria although I don't know how reliable that is. But the inner bark does appear to have anti-histamine properties, and is used do soothe insect bites and stings. Fresh leaves are used for heartburn, and an essence made from the leaves is used for burns and abscesses. The oil from the seeds is used by women as cosmetic, massaged into the skin. And the powdered bark is used magically! If a pregnant woman takes a powder made from a female tree it is said she will get a girl; if a power from a male tree, she would supposedly get a boy. Don't rely on this though.

Wood Rose

Marula wood is easily workable and splinter-free. It is used for making cups and bowls, platters, spoons, stamping blocks, pails, drums, and a variety of ornaments. Because Marula trees are so valuable, trees can only be felled with special permission – in rural regions that means you will have to ask the local chief or headman. And only male trees can be cut. A strange ornamental thing you can buy – and which confuses many people – is called a wood rose. This is a formation that looks like a huge, wooden mushroom or flower. But what it actually is, is a tumour-like growth of wood that is formed by a marula tree in response to the presence of a parasitic mistletoe.

Marula bark yields a fabric dye that can be brown, pink, mauve or red. The fibre of the bark can be used for making rope.

For many reasons, therefore, these are desirable trees to cultivate. The stones can be planted just as they are at the beginning of spring. They germinate fairly reliably and seedlings can be transplanted easily. They can also grow from truncheons. Marulas grow in dry areas and don't need (or like) a lot of water. They are nevertheless fairly fast growing, as much as 1.5 m/5 ft a year while young. They are deciduous in the winter and can tolerate long droughts. They can withstand light frost, but they prefer hot and sunny climates. They are great trees to plant in parks and on farms and game reserves or along town and city streets. They can also be planted in larger gardens, but bear in mind that they grow very big and drop large amounts of leaves. In fact even the amount of fruit they will drop each year can become a problem! An interesting alternative for someone without a big garden (or without a garden, period) is growing a bonsai Marula tree!

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