This tree can be found throughout the Kruger National Park but is far more common in the south in the areas around the Skukuza, Pretoriuskop, Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge camps. As you travel north, its densities drop and becomes less common in the areas around Mopani Camp. Apart from being drought resistant, it also produces beautiful succulent fruit which can and is indeed relished by humans and many animals found within Kruger Park.
Its generic name Sclerocarya is derived from an ancient Greek term Sklērós meaning “hard” and karyon meaning “nut” and is in reference to the hard stone found within its fleshy fruit. It is in the same botanical family as cashew, pistachio and mango.
It is a dioecious tree meaning that there are distinct male and female organisms. In other words, marula trees you encounter are either male or female specimens. Only the female trees bear fruit, whilst the male trees bear flowers. Apart from other sacred beliefs, in reference to its dioecious nature, legend has it that a woman can take a bark specimen from either a male or female tree to determine the sex of her next baby.
It can be classified as a medium to large tree, usually around 10m in height, however specimens exceeding 18m in height have been recorded. It has a single stemmed trunk that branches out to a dense spreading crown. Often photographed on Kruger safaris, due to its beauty, it typifies the park’s bushveld ambience.
It is regarded as a sacred tree in Africa and seldom cut or chopped down. In South Africa and, therefore the Kruger National Park, it is regarded as protected.
The fruit of the marula tree is very popular and sought after. The tree bears its fruit from January through to March and bears approximately 500kg of fruit every year. They are edible and are very high in vitamin C (levels up to four times higher than an orange).
Many animals including warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus), giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and of course elephant (Loxodonta africana) relish the fruit. Elephants travel far and wide in the Kruger National Park to feast on Marula fruit and it seems their populations in the south of Kruger Park tend to increase around the time the fruit ripen in the beginning of the year. When ripe, the fruit are yellow in colour and can be eaten straight off the tree, or alternatively used to make jams, juice, jelly and alcoholic drinks.
Apart from the fleshy fruit (quite similar to a litchi fruit), the peel or skin of the fruit can be used in homeopathic medicines, it can also be dried and used as a substitute for coffee and the stone produces a high-quality oil.
Different parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine. Leaves are chewed to prevent heartburn, whilst the oil in the nuts is used for various skin treatments and cooking. The bark contains antihistamine and is used as a malaria prophylactic.
Insects pollinate the flowers, whilst the larval stage of the African moth (Argema mimosa) feeds on the tree’s leaves.
Do elephants get drunk from eating fermented marula fruit?
Many stories and even some films/documentaries tell of drunk, wild, African elephants walking around the bush after having consumed fermented marula fruit, often making them overly aggressive and unpredictable.
In fact, these stories are far from the truth. Elephants tend to not eat marula fruit lying on the ground but prefer ripe fruit still hanging on the tree, often pushing over marula trees to get to ripe fruit out of their reach whilst rotten fruit lie on the ground. In a place like the Kruger National Park where wildlife abounds, it is also very seldom, if ever, that animals allow fruit to ripen to such an extent that they begin to ferment. In particular, with marula fruit which is so popular amongst the animals, it is unlikely that fruit ever really ferment to the point that they actually start producing alcohol. Elephants will also revisit trees after eating their fruit to investigate if unripe fruit have, in the meantime, ripened.
So what about internal fermentation, in other words, marula fruit fermenting internally inside an elephant’s stomach, after it has been eaten? Food elephants eat take between 12 to 46 hours to pass through its digestive system, way too short for fermentation to occur in such levels, that they become intoxicated.
This story then remains a myth as it is highly unlikely that this occurs naturally in the Kruger National Park.
Ripe marula fruit is a very good reason to go on a Kruger Park safari during the hot summer months from January to March. It’s also the time of year that many animals such as impala (Aepyceros melampus) and burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) give birth to their young.
The air is saturated with the smell of ripe marula fruit and it’s a veritable time of plenty in the bush. The stately marula tree is a key factor in this general feeling of well being and at this time, it’s easy to understand why people in Africa hold it in such high regard.Sources used in this article include Wikipedia, marula.org.za, nationalgeographic.com, pza.sanbi.org/sclerocarya-birrea and living lifestyle.co.za
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