Marula – from Stem to Stern (or root)

Photo credit: Stephen Sporik. Paintings inside Pomongwe Cave.

We noted, in a previous post, a cave in Zimbabwe: Pomongwe cave. When discussing marula, specifically marula oil, bringing a cave into the conversation does not seem relevant. Except that it is from a historical context.

Marula has been part of the African life for centuries. As far back as ten thousand years, and very probably longer, marula has been part of the southern African diet. The fruit is highly nutritious, as are the seed kernels. Inside Pomongwe cave, evidence exists that over twenty million marula fruits were eaten.

Photo credit: Brett Hilton-Batber

The marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) is one of Africa’s treasures. Not only is the fruit so highly valued, but every component of the tree can serve a vital purpose. The tree bears fruit from January through March – give or take several weeks, depending upon location, beginning when the tree reaches seven to ten years of age. Trees continue fruiting into their hundredth year and beyond (at over fifty feet tall, the ancient trees are quite majestic!).

While the fruit itself is important (especially to us here at DLG, and we will discuss it in future posts), Africans have used virtually every part of the tree:  The wood can be carved and the bark made into a dye or brewed into a tonic used as part of a marriage ritual (marula is known as the “marriage tree”). The bark contains antihistamines and is also used to treat fever, malaria, scorpion stings, snake bites, dysentery, and diarrhea.

The “mopane worm” – Saturniidae “Emperor moth” caterpillar. Popular food item in southern Africa. Large numbers of caterpillars can be harvested before the start of the rainy season, dried, and stored. Photo credit: P.A. Hulley.

The inner bark makes rope. Insects – e.g., the large Saturniid caterpillar, a resident of the tree, and the larvae of the cerambycid wood-boring beetle – can be roasted as nutritious treats. (We here are DLG have enjoyed the mopane worm as part of our meal.) The leaves are commonly used to treat heartburn and indigestion.

Marula trees are dioecious, i.e., they have a gender. The Venda believe bark infusions can determine the sex of an unborn child. If a woman wants a son, the male tree is used; a daughter, the female tree. But, if the infusion fails (a child of the opposite sex is born), then the child is designated as very special: he or he defied the spirits.

We cannot forget the roots, which are used for bilharzia (a disease caused by a parasite worm), sore eyes, weakness, and making an alcoholic medicine known as kati.

Finally, the fruit.  Inside the fruit, and held firmly by a concrete hard pit or stone, are one to four seed kernels. These are tasty, protein-rich food sources, and their high oil content makes for a lovely skin cosmetic – and it is the oil that we will focus on in future posts.

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