Marula: Food, Function, and Sustainable Development

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By Matt Styslinger

The marula tree is an African native highly prized for its fruit. It’s found throughout 29 sub-Saharan African countries—from Cape Verde to Ethiopia to South Africa—and is a good source of nutrition because the fruit is high in Vitamin C, and it contains a protein-rich nut at its core.

The marula tree has been an essential source of nutrition for thousands of years, and is simultaneously a fruit and a nut tree. (Photo Credit: Amarula Cream)

While the crop is not domesticated, the marula tree has been intentionally cultivated in the wild for hundreds of years, and its distribution closely matches human migration patterns. In many African cultures a gift of marula nuts is a sign of friendship, and a large marula tree is often a village gathering place for rituals. People appreciate the tree for its shade and beauty, but it also supplies valuable food and supplements farmers incomes.

Beautiful and leafy, yet drought resistant, an average marula tree grows to be around 9 meters tall and bears up to 500 kilograms of fruit per year. Marula fruits fall off of the tree while they are still green and hard, and ripen within five days. Farmers often build fences or a barrier of thorny branches to keep animals—including elephants, rhinos, giraffes, kudus, and baboons—from getting to the fruit first. Fully ripe marula fruits are tart, with a pleasant sweet-and-sour taste. Marula juice has four times as much Vitamin C as orange juice. Some fruits are eaten raw, but most are processed into beverages or jellies.

In the center of each fruit is a large nut stone, which contains a soft macadamia-like nut kernel. The highly nutritious kernels, which are eaten raw and roasted, are rich in antioxidants. They are about 25 percent protein and contain calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. The nuts are about 60 percent oil, which is used to treat burns and wounds, and is believed to have anti-aging properties for the skin. Dry marula nuts keep for months without spoiling, and they can be stockpiled as emergency food or as dietary supplements during off seasons.

In addition to being highly productive, marula indirectly supports other agricultural activities. The flowers produce high quantities of nectar, and bees raised near marula trees produce a light-colored honey with excellent flavor. The marula leaves are also used for livestock fodder.

Marula wood is very hard and is used to make mortars and pestles, bowls, drums, beehives, and stools. The tree’s bark has medicinal properties and is used to treat dysentery and diarrhea, rheumatism, and insect bites. Many Africans also believe that marula root tonics have anti-malarial properties.

Many communities brew their own local version of marula beer. In southeastern Zimbabwe, it is known as “mukundi,” and in Swaziland the potent local marula drink is so popular that beer sales drop dramatically after the trees bear fruit. Namibia has an official marula wine season. But marula is most famous for South Africa’s commercially produced Amarula Cream liqueur, which is similar to an Irish cream.

Marula trees can tolerate very inhospitable climates and terrain and have few pests or diseases.

Marula thrives in hot, dry climates, tolerates saline water, and grows well even during droughts. The tree is also an excellent tool for reforestation, and is planted in areas suffering from deforestation and desertification for regenerative purposes.

The crop has strong potential to be grown more widely. In South Africa alone, around 500 tons of marula fruit is commercially processed for juice and 2,000 tons for Amarula Cream every year. Oil from the marula nut is high in unsaturated fatty acids and could be marketed as a specialty salad oil. Its non-drying and anti-aging properties could also make the oil useful in cosmetic products.

The marula tree holds major income opportunities in poor rural communities. In Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, fruits are often collected and sold by villagers to marula processing facilities. The promotion of this tree could foster sustainable development throughout Africa, because it has the potential to alleviate poverty, support food security for both human and animal populations, and help regenerate degraded environments.

To learn more about crops indigenous to Africa, see: Potato, Potahto, Monkey Oranges: Mouthwatering Potential, The Locust Bean: An Answer to Africa’s Greatest Needs in One Tree, Moringa: The Giving Tree, Black-eyed Peas to the Rescue, The Taming of the Dika: West Africa’s Most Eligible Wild Tree, Sorghum: Rise to Prominence, Amaranth: Food Production Without Attention, and African Eggplant: The Fruit that is Enjoyed as  Vegetable.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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