Sclerocarya birrea

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Kruger Park Scenery - HDR (7645852578).jpg
S. birrea with and without foliage
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Sapindales
Family: Anacardiaceae
Genus: Sclerocarya
S. birrea
Binomial name
Sclerocarya birrea
(A. Rich.) Hochst.

Poupartia birrea (A. Rich.) Aubrév
Spondias birrea (A. Rich.) [1]

Marula trunk
Green marula fruit
Sapling with distinctive emarginate leaflets with toothed margins, features not present in adult plants

Sclerocarya birrea (Ancient Greek: σκληρός {sklērós}, "hard", and κάρυον {káryon}, "nut", in reference to the stone inside the fleshy fruit), commonly known as the marula, is a medium-sized deciduous fruit, indigenous to the miombo woodlands of Southern Africa, the Sudano-Sahelian range of West Africa, the savanna woodlands of East Africa and Madagascar.


The tree is a single stemmed tree with a wide spreading crown. It is characterised by a grey mottled bark. The tree grows up to 18 m tall mostly in low altitudes and open woodlands. The distribution of this species throughout Africa and Madagascar has followed the Bantu in their migrations. There is some evidence of human domestication of marula trees, as trees found on farm lands tend to have larger fruit size.[2]

The fruits, which ripen between December and March, have a light yellow skin (exocarp), with white flesh (mesocarp). They fall to the ground when unripe and green in colour, and then ripen to a yellow colour on the ground. They are succulent and tart with a strong and distinctive flavour.[3] Inside is a walnut-sized, thick-walled stone (endocarp). These stones, when dry, expose the seeds by shedding 2 (sometimes 3) small circular plugs at one end. The fruits are drupes with a single seed encased within their endocarp, although up to four seeds can be present.[4] The seeds have a delicate nutty flavour and are much sought-after, especially by small rodents who know to gnaw exactly where the plugs are located.

The trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male and female trees. Male trees produce multiple male flowers on a terminal raceme. These have red sepals and petals, and about 20 stamens per flower. On rare occasion a male flower can produce a gynoecium, turning it bisexual. Female flowers grow individually on their own pedicel and have staminodes.[4]

Sclerocarya birrea is divided into three subspecies: subsp. birrea, subsp. caffra and subsp. multifoliolata.[4] These subspecies are differentiated by changes in leaf shape and size. They also grow in different areas in Africa. Subsp. birrea is found in northern Africa, subsp. caffra is found in southern Africa, and subsp. multifoliolata is only found in Tanzania. The leaves are alternate, compound, and imparipinnately divided. The leaflet shapes range from round to elliptical.[4]


The generic name Sclerocarya is derived from the Ancient Greek words 'skleros' meaning 'hard' and 'karyon' meaning 'nut'. This refers to the hard pit of the fruit. The specific epithet 'birrea' comes from the common name 'birr', for this type of tree in Senegal.[4] The marula belongs to the same family Anacardiaceae as the mango, cashew, pistachio and sumac, and is closely related to the genus Poupartia from Madagascar.

Common names include jelly plum, cat thorn, morula, cider tree, marula, maroola nut/plum, and in Afrikaans, maroela.[5] The marula tree is protected in South Africa.[5]


Traditional uses[edit]

The fruit is traditionally used for food in Africa, and has considerable socioeconomic importance.[6] The fruit juice and pulp are mixed with water and stored in a container over 1–3 days of fermentation to make marula beer, a traditional alcoholic beverage.[7] The alcoholic distilled beverage (maroela-mampoer) made from the fruit is referenced in the stories of the South African writer Herman Charles Bosman.[citation needed] Marula oil is used topically to moisturise the skin, and as an edible oil in the diet of San people in Southern Africa.[8][9]

Commercial uses[edit]

On an industrial level the fruit of the marula tree is collected from the wild by members of rural communities on whose land the trees grow. This harvest and sale of fruit only occurs during two to three months but is an important income to poor rural people. This can be an important source of income for poor rural women.[10] The fruit is delivered to processing plants where fruit pulp, pips, kernels and kernel oil are extracted and stored for processing throughout the year.[citation needed]

The fruit is used to make the cream liqueur Amarula and also sold as a frozen puree used in juice blends. Marula oil is used as an ingredient in cosmetics.[11]

Uses by other species[edit]

The marula fruit has been suggested to be the food of choice for the ancestral forest-dwelling form of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, which was much more selective about which fruit they preferred as opposed to the flies that have self-domesticated themselves to live in near proximity to humans. The ancestral fruit flies are triggered by the marula ester ethyl isovalerate in the marula fruit.[12] The marula fruit is also eaten by various animals in Southern Africa. In the documentary Animals Are Beautiful People by Jamie Uys, released in 1974, some scenes portray elephants, ostriches, warthogs and baboons allegedly becoming intoxicated from eating fermented marula fruit. While the fruit is commonly eaten by elephants, the animals would need a huge amount of fermented marulas to have any effect on them, and other animals prefer the ripe fruit. The amount of water drunk by elephants each day would also dilute the effect of the fruit to such an extent that they would not be affected by it.[13][14] Giraffes, rhinoceroses and elephants all browse on the marula tree, with elephants in particular being a major consumer. Elephants eat the bark, branches and fruits of the marula, which may limit the spread of the trees. The damaged bark, due to browsing, can be used to identify marula trees as elephants preferentially target them. Elephants distribute marula seeds in their dung.[13]



  1. ^ "Entry for Sclerocarya birrea". JSTOR Global Plants. JSTOR. Retrieved 2014-01-12.
  2. ^ Leakey, Roger; Shackleton, Sheona; Du Plessis, Pierre (2005). "Domestication potential of Marula (Sclerocarya birrea subsp caffra) in South Africa and Namibia: 1. Phenotypic variation in fruit traits". Agroforestry Systems. 64 (1): 25–35. doi:10.1007/s10457-005-2419-z. S2CID 21601141.
  3. ^ Wickens, G. E.; Food and Agriculture Organization (1995). "Potential Edible Nuts". Edible Nuts. Non-Wood Forest Products. Vol. 5. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization. ISBN 92-5-103748-5. OCLC 34529770. Retrieved 2008-11-10.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Sclerocarya birrea". Pl@ntUse. 15 May 2018. Retrieved 19 April 2019.
  5. ^ a b "Protected Trees" (PDF). Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Republic of South Africa. 3 May 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 July 2010.
  6. ^ National Research Council (2008-01-25). "Marula". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits. Lost Crops of Africa. Vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10596-5. OCLC 34344933. Retrieved 2008-07-17.
  7. ^ "The marvellous brewers of marula beer". Eco products. 2016-03-14. Retrieved 2019-02-14.
  8. ^ Engelter & Wehmeyer; Wehmeyer, A.S. (1970). "Fatty acid composition of oils of some edible seeds of wild plants". Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 18 (1): 25–26. doi:10.1021/jf60167a025. PMID 5524461.
  9. ^ Shackleton, S.E.; et al. (2002). A summary of knowledge on Sclerocarya birrea with emphasis on its importance as a NTFP in South and Southern Africa. Part 1.
  10. ^ Sheona, Shackleton (2004). "Livelihood benefits from the local level commercialization of savanna resources: a case study of the new and expanding trade in marula (Sclerocarya birrea) beer in Bushbuckridge, South Africa". South African Journal of Science. 100 (11): 651–657 – via ingenta.
  11. ^ What You Need to Know About Marula Oil, Healthline, by Corey Whelan, 26 Sept 2019; reviewed 5 May 2022
  12. ^ Mansourian, Suzan; Enjin, Anders V.; Jirle, Erling; Ramesh, Vedika; Rehermann, Guillermo; Becher, Paul G.; Pool, John E.; Stensmyr, Marcus C. (December 6, 2018). "Wild African Drosophila melanogaster Are Seasonal Specialists on Marula Fruit". Cell. 28 (24): 3960–3968.e3. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.10.033. PMC 7065024. PMID 30528579.
  13. ^ a b Morris, Steve; Humphreys, David; Reynolds, Dan (2006). "Myth, Marula, and Elephant: An Assessment of Voluntary Ethanol Intoxication of the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) Following Feeding on the Fruit of the Marula Tree (Sclerocarya birrea)" (PDF). Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. 79 (2): 363–369. doi:10.1086/499983. PMID 16555195. S2CID 36629801. Retrieved 26 October 2015.
  14. ^ Couper, Ross. "Elephants drunk on native fruit at South Africa's Singita Sabi Sand". Retrieved 25 April 2014.

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