The marula (Sclerocarya birrea) is an African tree that can be found all around the continent, as well as in the island of Madagascar. Strange enough, the name actually comes from the Greek language. It has been attested for thousands of years, since the dawn of mankind. Archaeologists have discovered that the marula was used for food in Africa since at least 10,000 years B.C. It has played a major role in the diet of Bantu tribes and it is believed to have been planted by them since ancient times, since its current range overlaps with their migrations.
The tree belongs to the Anacardiaceae family, which also notably includes the mango. It has an extremely strong and resilient root system, which is able to build and accumulate massive amounts of water during the African wet season. This allows it to have an unbelievable resistance to sunlight, massive heat and during long periods of complete drought. Its ability to resist drought is legendary and allows it to prosper in places considered inhospitable for almost any other tree. The marula is able to not only survive in such conditions, but also to produce an important quantity of fruit every year.
The tree usually inhabits arid and semi-arid areas, where annual rainfall is as low as 250mm (although it can be found in areas with up to 1000mm annual rainfall). Because marula relies on its exceptional root storage system, the development and number of fruits produced depends of the amount of rain from the previous year, rather than the one from the current year when fruiting happens.
This tree grows in different regions of Africa but is mostly found in the Miombo Woodlands. It can reach 18 m in height and is very conspicuous, since it usually grows in open woodlands at low altitudes. It has an impressive wide crown and a single stem. The grey mottled bark is typical for this tree.
Other trees from this family, all known for their useful fruits, are mango, cashew and pistachio. The seeds of marula are similar to nuts and eaten as such by both human and rodents. It is most famous in the Western world due to the "Amarula Cream Liqueur" and other similar beverages prepared from its fruits.
Because of its ability to grow and produce fruits in very barren conditions, it is a very important food source for animals in the area. It is of particular importance in the diet of elephants. They consume large parts of the tree and have been proven to have a very negative effect on the tree, limiting their spread. Elephants eat most of the tree, including the fruits, bark, branches and leaves. However, they also help the tree by spreading the seeds in their dung. Other local animals that feed on marula are rhinoceroses and giraffes, who are able to reach the crown of the tree with ease.
The fruit has a unique creamy flavour, quite persistent, and are very succulent. They contain a very strong inner core, difficult to penetrate. When it becomes completely dry, the inner stone sheds 2-3 small circular plugs at one end, giving access to the seeds inside. The small rodents that inhabit the area are experts at extracting the seeds. These have a special nutty flavour and can be consumed by both humans and animals.
Fruits, nuts, leaves.
The marula tree is probably the most useful plant in the arid regions where it grows, a favourite of both humans and elephants. Since it has been cultivated and used for thousands of years, it's very hard to determine if the initial use of the tree was as a source of food or one of ancient medicine. There are many African legends surrounding this tree but the health benefits of the fruit are obvious and have been known for a really long time.
The main nutrients are concentrated in the pulp, which is beneficial for the bones, as well as the skin and muscles. The nuts are also a major source of minerals and protein, and contribute to overall health. Marula oil is also very important as a cosmetic product. It is a natural product with major benefits, similar in structure to olive oil. It has proven superior to other oils for the nourishment of the hair, body and skin.
The fruits of the marula tree have been used for a long time to fight malaria, one of the deadliest diseases of Africa. In traditional medicine, it was considered to be able to slow down the progress of the disease and alleviate the symptoms. Modern research has not found any evidence to validate this claim but it is still used as such in African medicine.
However, the ability of marula to act as a powerful anti-acid has been proven by research. This is achieved by eating the crushed leaves and it can even be more effective than commercial products with the same purpose. The leaves are also a natural remedy for heartburn and especially used as such by pregnant women and people who want to avoid chemical drugs.
Another traditional cure prepare from marula at home is a mixture of ground fruits, leaves and bark pieces, along with cold water. This acts as a remedy against stomach pain and cramps, due to some yet unknown reaction between these three components. The bark itself has numerous uses, especially the inner part. It is effective against insect bites and can also be used to stop allergic reactions. It acts as a natural histamine and can be used to eliminate moderate venom out of snake wounds.
The seeds are delicious to eat, with a delicate nutty flavour. However, their health benefits are much more important, since they are a major source of oleic acid and antioxidants. When cold pressed, the seeds produced a very important oil that can be used as a cosmetic for the skin. It is a major source of antioxidants and fatty acids and thus has the ability to protect the skin against the harmful effects of sunlight and prevent premature aging. It can also be used as a general smoothing cosmetic product, ensuring that the skin is always supple and soft. The bark is considered in some countries to be an anti-malaria agent and also as a treatment for digestive problems and diarrhea or dysentery. A beverage prepared from the inner bark layers can reduce the pain after snake bites or stings from scorpions and other venomous insects.
All around Africa, marula oil has been used by women as a natural cosmetic. Its very high content of antioxidants makes it extremely durable and resilient, being about ten times more stable in time than the purest olive oil. Women in Africa use the oil to massage their face, feet and hands, as well as the hair. Pregnant women and new mothers in Zimbabwe have used it for a long time to get rid of the marks caused by child birth. However, the major use of the oil all around the continent is as a moisturizing agent able to restore dry skin.
As a skin cosmetic marula oil has been compared to almond oil. It has even been proven to have superior properties in all aspects. It can be mixed with other components in skincare products, providing nourishment and revitalization. When applied on damaged skin, marula oil reduces redness and restores the hydration level. It is very rich in fatty acids like oleic acid and linoleic acid and absorbs quickly, transporting these useful compounds to the inner layers of the skin.
A beverage similar to coffee can be brewed from the dried skin or marula fruits, offering a cheap and all natural alternative. The rest of the tree has several industrial uses, such as the production of rope from the inner bark fibers. The wood is soft and used in the manufacture of furniture and musical instruments. Oil made from the kernel is able to preserve meat and can also be added to cosmetic products. Dyes can be obtained from the bark, with either a red or a brown color.
The bark is known to have a content of antihistamines, and can thus be ingested as a cure for dysentery and diarrhea after it is crushed into a powder and diluted with cold water.
The most famous use of the marula is as the main ingredient of Amarula liqueur. This sweet alcoholic drink is one of the most important export products of South Africa and the best known African beverage. In addition, the fruit can be prepared in other ways, for example in preserves, jams and chutneys or as an addition to beers and stronger drinks.
The marula fruit is extremely rich in vitamin C, with a content eight times higher compared to an orange, but is also a major source for other bioactive compounds such as antioxidants and oleic acid. The nuts also have a high nutritional content and are rich in natural protein and essential minerals like magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, iron and copper.
People who are allergic to other nuts should consume marula nuts with caution. Otherwise, there are no other attested side effects of eating the fruit or the nuts.
Marula fruits are very easy to collect, since they fall from the tree themselves as soon as they ripe and can be gathered from the ground. They become yellow when ripe, normally in the first part of the year, somewhere between mid-January and mid-March. To get to the nuts, the other shell must be broken. However, it cracks naturally after the fruit is completely dry.