The Marula Tree

by | Jul 14, 2022 | Monthly Rangers Blog, News

Kayleigh Rose Humphries


The marula tree

This week I would like to share some fascinating facts about one of Southern Africa’s most loved trees, the marula tree.

The beautiful marula (Scelerocarya Birrea), also called the “tree of love” by locals, is a rather big, impressive tree. During the summer months, the tree provides a large amount of shade. This makes it an ideal gathering spot, for ceremonies, such as weddings. It is also said that those who get married under the branches of the marula Tree, will enjoy vigor and fertility throughout their days. In the Zulu culture, the marula Tree also symbolizes a woman’s fertility, softness, and tenderness, and new-born girls are welcomed into the world with traditional marula ceremonies.

How to spot a marula tree whilst on a safari

The marula tree is a deciduous tree that grows to a height of 18 meters tall. During the months of September to November, the tree is in a stunning blooming stage, adorned with beautiful flowers. From January to March, the tree is covered in tasty fruits. The flesh from the fruit is high in vitamins and said to be even richer in vitamin C, than an orange. 

The marula tree
The Marula Tree Bark

The marula tree
Photo’s by Kayleigh Humphries

Uses of the marula tree

  • The skin from the fruit can be boiled to make a drink, or burnt to be used as a substitute for coffee.
  • The wood is soft and can be used for lovely art carvings and to make “mokoros” (dugout canoes).
  • The inner bark of the marula tree can be used to take the sting away from a rash, by pressing the bark onto your skin and rubbing it along the rash.
  • The inner bark is used to make a pink/brown dye.
  • The inner bark can also be used to make a rope.
  • Oil from the seed within the fruit, can be used as a skin cosmetic.
  • The seeds can be eaten as a snack.
  • The green leaves can be eaten to help relieve heartburn.
  • The roots of the tree contain a large amount of water and can be dug up and hung upside down to drain the water, which you can then drink. Have a look during your next safari, to see if you notice how elephants have dug up roots, in order to get water during the dry season.
The Marula Tree

Robin Cook from Elephants Alive spreading dung paste on a tree

Damaged Marula tree

The Marula Tree
Photo by Kayleigh Humphries

Male or female

Yes, there is a difference in gender within the Marula Tree. How do you tell? The female tree carries flowers and fruits, whereas the male trees don’t. So it’s quite easy to tell the difference during the blooming months of September to March. There is, however, another way that you can tell the gender during the other months of the year. Have a look at the ground around the Marula Tree. The grass around the tree will be flattened. This is due to the elephants feeding on the flowers and fruits that have dropped to the ground. The surrounding grass could also be trampled, when elephants stand next to the tree, while pushing up against it, to get the unreachable fruits to fall to the ground.

In one of our cultures, the Venda Culture, it is believed that if you wish to have a baby boy the pregnant female will have to drink a tea that is made from the powered bark of a male Marula. If she wishes to have a baby girl, she would have to drink a tea made from the powered bark of a female Marula. However, if the baby is born of the opposite gender, it is said that the young one is extremely special, as it was able to defy the spirits.

Protected tree

With all the uses and beliefs of the Marula Tree, it is no wonder that the tree is highly valued in South Africa, therefore being protected. If caught while cutting down this tree, you are liable to a fine of over R50 000.

Elephants are sadly the biggest threat to Marula Trees. They love the inner bark of the Marula, because it is filled with nutritional value and is also very tasty.

By breaking off the cambium layer (also known as ring-barking) of the tree, it damages the layer of the tree that keeps it alive and nutrients and moisture cannot travel from the roots up to the leaves of the tree. Sadly, these trees die. If ring-barking is not as severe around the whole trunk, the tree might still survive.

How are we protecting the marula tree?

There are two main human interventions which we can utilize in order to protect the trees.

In the Sabi Sand, most private land owners have come together and agreed to wire-netting the trunk of the tree, in order to make it a little harder for elephants to dig their big tusks into the cambium layer of the marula. The fencing does not have any negative impact on the tree, nor the environment around it.

Another way is to hang a beehive in the tree. Elephants are quite scared of bees and the buzzing sound coming from a busy hive, can cause the elephant to leave the area. Albeit, showing their disdain first, by kicking up sand, flapping their ears and making loud trumping sounds! With beehives, we do not only save a tree, but also help the bee population as well. This also give scientists another opportunity to study bees and their behaviors. Using a beehive also does not have any negative impact on the tree, or the environment. In fact, it plays a positive role both ways.

The marula tree wrapped in wire

A marula tree wrapped in protective wire
Photo by Kayleigh Humphries

The inner bark is used to make a pink/brown dye

The inner bark is used to make a pink/brown dye
Photo by Kayleigh Humphries

Here is a list of other ways to protect marula trees against elephants

  • Rock packing/pyramids.
  • Creosote
  • Bee pheromones.
  • Bioneem oil.
  • Chili oil.
  • Dung paste. This is made up from clay and buffalo dung, mixed with fermented elephant dung. Spreading this dung paste on the main stem, helps prevent insects from getting deeper inside the bark, that already has some damage by the ring-barking of elephants.
The marula tree protected by beehive
The marula tree protected by beehive

Beehive hanging from a Marula Tree
Photo by Robin Cook, Elephants Alive

The Marula Tree is an iconic tree to many around Southern Africa and it’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful trees that we get to enjoy here at Elephants Plains. While on your next, or first safari, make sure to ask your guide about the beautiful Marula Tree…

Keep an eye out for our weekly blog posts. We have insightful and interesting topics to keep you busy, while planning your next safari adventure! Hope to see you out on game drive soon!

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