|S. birrea with and without foliage|
(A. Rich.) Hochst.
Poupartia birrea (A. Rich.) Aubrév
Sclerocarya birrea, commonly known as the marula (Ancient Greek σκληρός, sklērós, "hard", and κάρυον, káryon, "nut", in reference to the stone inside the fleshy fruit), is a medium-sized dioecious tree, indigenous to the miombo woodlands of Southern Africa, the Sudano-Sahelian range of West Africa, and Madagascar.
The tree is a single stemmed tree with a wide spreading crown. It is characterized 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, as it has been an important item in their diet since time immemorial. 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 to the trees' detriment; indeed, elephant browsing has been shown to significantly limit the spread of the trees. Elephants do distribute marula seeds in their dung, however.
The fruits, which ripen between December and March, have a light yellow skin, with white flesh that is rich in vitamin C— containing about eight times the amount found in an orange. They are succulent and tart with a strong and distinctive flavour. Inside is a walnut-sized, thick-walled stone. These stones, when dry, expose the seeds by shedding 2 (sometimes 3) small circular plugs at one end. 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 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.
The Marula tree is protected in South Africa.
While little known globally, the fruit is traditionally used for food in Africa, and has considerable socioeconomic importance.
The tree also produces a high quality cooking oil, which is resistant to oxidation (rancidity) and thus has a long shelf life.
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. The fruit is delivered to processing plants where fruit pulp, pips, kernels and kernel oil are extracted and stored for processing throughout the year.
In popular culture
The alcoholic distilled beverage (maroela-mampoer) made from the fruit is referenced in the stories of the South African writer Herman Charles Bosman.
The marula fruit is also eaten by various animals in Southern Africa. In the movie Animals Are Beautiful People by Jamie Uys, released in 1974, some scenes portray elephants, ostriches, warthogs and baboons becoming intoxicated from eating fermented marula fruit. Elephants 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. Reports of elephants becoming intoxicated from marula fruit, however, are persistent.
- "Entry for Sclerocarya birrea". JSTOR Global Plants. JSTOR. Retrieved 2014-01-12.
- 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. Retrieved 26 October 2015.
- Wickens, G. E.; Food and Agriculture Organization (1995). "Potential Edible Nuts". Edible Nuts. Non-Wood Forest Products. 5. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization. ISBN 92-5-103748-5. OCLC 34529770. Retrieved 2008-11-10.
- "Sclerocarya birrea Sond. ssp. caffra J.O. Kokwaro". ecoport.org. 2 November 2001. Retrieved 26 October 2015.
- "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.
- National Research Council (2008-01-25). "Marula". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits. Lost Crops of Africa. 3. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10596-5. OCLC 34344933. Retrieved 2008-07-17.
- Morris, Steve; David Humphreys; Dan Reynolds (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)". Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. 79 (2): 363–9. doi:10.1086/499983. PMID 16555195. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
- Couper, Ross. "Elephants drunk on native fruit at South Africa's Singita Sabi Sand". Retrieved 25 April 2014.