74. Marula

A while back, I wrote a post about a magic tree. A magic penis tree. It was, of course, not really magic at all. It just had such strange, unlikely fruit that it some odd beliefs got attached to it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any magic trees down in the Lowveld. Here’s one.



It’s called a Marula. If you want to be picky, I suppose it isn’t really magic either. But it may as well be, because it is so staggeringly useful that it would be the poster child of the intelligent design squad if they knew about it. Yes folks, it’s time for another Lowveld ecosystem post. I’m doing a tree again. I hope you can contain yourselves.

The Marula is an old friend of ours. A very old friend indeed. Some Marula seed pods left there by humans were found in Pomongwe Cave in Zimbabwe. About 24 million of them. From 10 000 BC. But we’ve been eating them since a little before that, when we were hairier and better at climbing. Some experts think the distribution of the Marula was influenced by the movement of Africa’s Bantu people.

There are not 24 million Marulas here. I counted. Twice.

There are not 24 million Marulas here. I counted. Twice.

Certainly today the trees are treated with reverence. They are not cut down when other trees are cleared for farming, and among some people, it is taboo to do so. This is quite a sensible way to go about things. Marulas are kind of useful. I’m not even sure where to start. So I’ll start with food.

Some food.

Some food.

Marulas are tasty. Which is quite handy, since a tree can produce about 500kg of fruit a year. They’re related to mangos, but have a flavour all of their own. They’re also related to poison ivy. Just saying. But they’re not just tasty; they’re good for you, too. Marula fruit has four times more vitamin C than oranges. They are eaten ripe or ground up to make porridge. They can also be boiled down and made into a jelly that is eaten with roast meat.

Or I'm just making this all up for the purpose of sneaking pictures of honey into your subconscious fur purposes which you will never understand.

Marula jelly. Or I’m just making this all up for the purpose of sneaking pictures of honey into your subconscious for purposes which you will never understand.

And that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. These funny looking things are empty Marula seed pods.

Or Leprechaun skulls. I've never learned to tell the difference.

Or Leprechaun skulls. I’ve never learned to tell the difference.

The seeds themselves sit behind hard-to-find trap-doors in the pods hard shell. They might be hard to find, but they are worth finding. They, too, are rich in vitamin C, and they are rich in protein and minerals. Which is a little trying, as they are quite hard to get at. It can take a day to fill up a small tin with kernels.

So you'd better bloody well enjoy them!

So you’d better bloody well enjoy them!

All this eating stuff is quite nice for the people who harvest them. We humans like to eat. But what we love to do is drink. This is a clip from an old wildlife documentary called “Animals are Beautiful People, Too”, made by the guy who made “The Gods Must be Crazy”.

Sadly it was probably staged. The bush is not filled with drunken animals every year when the Marulas get ripe. There is one animal that really does get drunk on Marulas, though. Us. These fine ladies are making Marula beer.

They have a way to go still.

They have a way to go still.

Marula beer is not drunk-making beer. It is of enormous cultural significance, being used in ceremonies like weddings. If you want to get drunk, you need to find this stuff.

The barbed wire is there to keep out mice.

The barbed wire is there to keep out mice.

It’s called mampoer. It’s the South African version of moonshine. It tears your throat out on the way down, but you don’t need much. It’s also good for stripping paint.

Bottles with barbed wire around them do not scream urbane sophistication. But fear not. If you want to get fancy, there’s this stuff.

Aren't we all just so lah-de-dah.

Aren’t we all just so lah-de-dah.

If you ever find any, buy it. Drink it over crushed ice. It really is delicious. And you won’t go blind.

If you drink too much, never fear. A coffee substitute can be made from the skins of the fruit.

But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there’s more. Oil from the kernels makes a very good cosmetic cream. Which is nice if you want to look pretty. If you are pretty enough already, you can cook with the oil or use it as a condiment.

I am not pretty enough already. No condiments for me.

I am not pretty enough already. No condiments for me.

The tree is also good if you’re actually sick. The bark contains an antihistamine, and is used to treat insect and scorpion bites. The bark is good for diarrhoea and dysentery. The tree even has anti-malarial qualities. And if you get heartburn from all the eating and drinking you’ve been doing, the leaves should soon sort you out.

And on we go. You can make rope from the bark, as well as a brown dye. You can mix the gum with soot and water to make ink. And the wood is nice and soft, so it’s good for carving.

You can carve a bowl to keep your bowls in.

You can carve a bowl to keep your bowls in.

And just in case you thought we were done, the Marula can save your life. If you find yourself dying of thirst out in the bush, you can dig up the roots of a Marula and literally squeeze enough water from them to survive.

Phew. That’s just about it.

It’s not just us who like Marulas. Most herbivores love them. Which can be a bit of a problem. Specifically, it’s a bit of a problem that these guys love them.

What the hell are you doing in my garden?

What the hell are you doing in my garden?

Marula fruits fall to the ground when they are ripe. It can be incongruously funny to watch a four ton behemoth picking up fruits the size of plums one by one with the tips of their trunks and popping them into their mouths.

But elephants are not always so patient. Sometimes they do this.

Either an elephant did this, or that guy shot it down using his patented "over the shoulder" technique.

Either an elephant did this, or that guy shot it down using his patented “over the shoulder” technique.

It’s hard to believe, what with all the poaching that goes on up North of us, but there are far too many elephants in the Lowveld. Their numbers have been swelled to above carrying capacity by the building of artificial water points. And it’s starting to have an impact.

Every time we go down to the bush, there are fewer big Marulas still standing. But we’ll discuss the elephant issue some other time, when I’m feeling sharper. It’s complicated.

Right now, I’m off to have a nightcap and go to bed. I’m sure I have a bottle of Amarula somewhere….

I don't. I don't have a bottle of Amarula somewhere. I was just saying that for effect. And now I am very sad.

I don’t. I don’t have a bottle of Amarula somewhere. I was just saying that for effect. And now I am very sad.


25 thoughts on “74. Marula

  1. albertine says:

    As Flanders and Swan put it: ‘Oh there’s nothing that a Wompom cannot do!’ I guess they just got the name a little muddled (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivf4w3r-_3c )

  2. narf77 says:

    I have read about the marula tree quite a lot in my search for useful plants for our food forest here on Serendipity Farm. If I could get hold of some seed I would attempt to grow some but getting seed into Tasmania is harder than smuggling drugs in. Apparently we want to keep Tasmania free of disease or some ridiculous premise like that so alas, no marula seeds for narf7 :(. We CAN buy Amarula cream here though so I might just have to drown my marula free sorrows in a bottle when I next venture into the city to shop. It used to be “cheap as chips” when it first hit the shelves but went from bargain basement booze when I was a college to upper shelf tipple seemingly overnight. Obviously something to do with the alcohol count…we Aussies prize a high alcohol count above everything else ;). By the way, “that guy” appears to be about to shoot his friend down with his over the shoulder technique…I too am sad that I don’t have a bottle of Amarula Cream at hand. Now that I know how very good it is for me, I can drink with impunity. A nice drop in my morning cuppa should have started my day out right but now I am going to have to face the day Amarula free…sigh…

    • 23thorns says:

      Yep. South Africans tend to chase the high alcohol count, too. Until they have a run-in with Stroh Rum. Then they tend to back down a little.

      • narf77 says:

        We Aussies are just getting warmed up when we hit the rum…the stuff that legends are made of. All of those stories about how Aussies are both fearless and hilarious come from the fact that we are all alcoholics. When we go to battle, we aren’t being brave and courageous, we are cavorting drunkenly around the place with our underpants on and a cardboard box on our heads…obviously the rest of the world sees this as bravery, it’s just an everyday event here in Australia. Why bother to buy pants when you are only going to wear them for Sunday best and when your mum comes to visit? Silly really.

  3. Art Brûlant says:

    Thanks for reminding me, I know I do have a bottle of Amarula somewhere!

  4. Jocelyn Hers says:

    Ah. You have brightened my dull day. Once because your post was fascinating, twice because I love your captions and thrice because you have reminded me that in my cupboard there is half a bottle of Amarula.

  5. Photos close to home says:

    This post is one reason I follow your blog.

  6. The Rider says:

    The whole Bushveld thank you for this post, especially the vervet monkeys… 🙂

  7. kokkieh says:

    Amarula also works great poured liberally over ice cream in stead of chocolate sauce. Now why’d I have to go and say that? Hang on, I’m just popping out to the shops quickly.

  8. ksbeth says:

    wow, i’ve never heard of this, thanks for sharing )

  9. Amarula is one of my favorite drinks. It also goes nicely when mixed 50/50 with a red tea.

  10. Amarula brings back memories of my honeymoon driving around Botswana, Namibia and a bit of SA. Amazing countries, incredible vistas, abundant and diverse wildlife, but most importantly delicious fruit based creamy alcoholic beverage thing……omnomnom!!! Also I had the Elephant culling conversation with a warden in Chobe River Front and it was a HARD conversation to have, me being the ideological Brit talking about borders not applying to wildlife and that high concentrations of animals are happening because they are effectively herded together by us and our activities, him explaining about how his house was pretty much destroyed by a couple of horny young bulls who got a bit close to his fruit trees and that there are more elephants in Botswana than any other place in Africa making it quite a problematic issue when you have a growing human population competing for usable safe space with all manner of large herbivores…….yes I also want to write something about this, but like you said it’s a damn emotive and complex issue.

  11. Buzzwordz says:

    I kept waiting for you to get to the part about the elephants who occasionally eat the fermented fruit, and just as occasionally get sh*t faced falling down drunk!

    • Great, now I have to go and figure how much alcohol it would take to get an elephant drunk. thanks so much for putting that idea in my brain

      • Well, that was quick:
        “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).
        Morris S, Humphreys D, Reynolds D.

        “School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UG, United Kingdom. steve.morris@bristol.ac.uk
        …The suggestion that the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) becomes intoxicated from eating the fruit of the marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) is an attractive, established, and persistent tale. … Extrapolating from human physiology, a 3,000-kg elephant would require the ingestion of between 10 and 27 L of 7% ethanol in a short period to overtly affect behavior, which is unlikely in the wild. Interpolating from ecological circumstances and assuming rather unrealistically that marula fruit contain 3% ethanol, an elephant feeding normally might attain an ethanol dose of 0.3 g kg(-1), about half that required. … Such tales, it seems, may result from “humanizing” elephant behavior.”

  12. I really enjoyed this. I just discovered marula fruits myself this year, but there is so much more to learn. Thanks for the information — water int he roots, bowls from the wood, etc. Here’s what I posted on the marula fruit earlier this year. http://catherinesherman.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/of-elephants-and-alcohol/

    After bringing a bottle of Amarula home in my husband’s suitcase from South Africa, my adult daughter informed me that she’d bought a bottle of Amarula in Kansas City a couple of years earlier. I know she didn’t offer any to me, or I would certainly have taken a sip or two.

  13. syrbal says:

    I HAVE had the Amarula and it is indeed delicious. I use it in the making of what is actually a coffee martini sort of confection called a “Tuscan Snowstorm”….I use Amarula, vodka, and a shot of frozen espresso in the blender. Yum. Great, now I am unhappy to be out of Amarula, too. That stuff even smells so good I want to take a bath in it.

  14. joanfrankham says:

    Delicious stuff, too bad you don’t have any…..

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