There are a myriad of trees and shrubs out here in the bush that possess a number of different traditional as well as medicinal uses, but none quite as significant as the tree of life, the Marula tree.

Being one of the most common trees around, particularly along sandy crests, it is often a tree that goes unnoticed in the winter times, but, as with many other trees, this changes drastically during the summer months. Given the transformation that the bush has undergone as a result of the recent rains, the Marula tree (and all its benefits) have truly come to life, and I would like to touch on a few of its great qualities.

Firstly, the Marula tree can be a photographer’s best friend in the summer months. Due to the long grass, and often oppressive heat during the day, leopards tend to climb trees more often and seemingly Marula trees in particular, not only in order to survey the surrounding landscape, but also to enjoy the much needed shade provided by the tree’s thick green canopy. The tree’s growth structure also provides many comfortable platforms upon which the leopard can rest and enjoy the cooler drafts of wind towards the upper parts of these trees.

DSC_Nhlanguleni in Marula Alistair

The Nhlanguleni female rests in the early afternoon beneath the shady canopy of a Marula tree. 1/1000 at f/5.0, ISO 2000

Apart from leopards, one animal you could almost guarantee will be in the vicinity of a fruiting Marula tree during the summer months, is an elephant. Elephants and the Marula tree have a very interesting relationship. During the months January through to March, the female Marula tree produces a delicious plum-sized fruit which elephants seemingly wait in anticipation for, as evidenced by their attendance underneath Marula trees all over. Once all of the ripened fruit has been consumed off of the ground in the immediate area surrounding the tree, elephants will often then shake the tree, forcing the remaining near-ripened fruit to come crashing down, much to the delight of the eager elephants.

DSC_Elephant & Marula Alistair

An elephant bull presses himself up against a Marula tree, shaking it gently to encourage more fruit to fall. 1/5000 at f/5.0, ISO 1000

With elephants digesting roughly only 40% of what they eat, elephant dung can be seen throughout summer with kernels and often even untouched marula fruits having passed through their digestive system. Interestingly enough, it is believed that the journey of this kernel through the digestive passages of the elephant may actually stimulate seed germination, further facilitated by the fact that the kernel lands up in what is essentially a fertile pile of compost, resulting in successful seed dispersal.

Other animals, like squirrels, will also even feed on these partially digested morsels, standing on the pile of dung and feasting.

It is not only in the summer months that elephants are reliant on this tree. During the winter months, and in times of food shortage, elephants are often seen ring-barking (stripping the tree of its inner layers) Marula trees in order to access the nutrient rich cambium layer responsible for the transportation of nutrients and water from the tree’s roots to the leaves.

Furthermore, there is a theory that due to the high vitamin C content of the Marula fruit, elephant bulls feed almost exclusively on Marula fruits in order to boost their immune systems, prior to entering a period of heightened testosterone known as musth. Whether there is any truth to this theory or not, it is undeniable that these bulls spend a fair amount of time consuming these juicy fruits.

DSC_Black & White elephant bull Alistair

A large elephant bull in the process of consuming a large quantity of marula fruit 1/400 at f/6.3, ISO 500

Apart from the elephants apparent obsession with this tree, as well as the many other animals that benefit from the tree’s yields, something I find even more fascinating, are the traditional and medicinal uses of the Marula tree.

Being a dioecious tree, meaning that the male and female parts are present on different trees, the local Shangaan people, who are very much entrenched in traditional and medicinal beliefs, believe that the Marula tree can assist in determining the gender of a pregnant woman’s unborn child. If a family wishes to have a girl, the pregnant woman is given a tea derived from the bark of the fruiting female tree, and for a boy, the opposite is true. Similarly, Marula trees are often also associated with traditional weddings as a result of the tree’s strong spiritual connections, and association with fertility.

The bark of the tree, which is often dried and ground into a fine powder, is believed to have strong antihistamine properties, and may also assist to cure other ailments such as chronic diarrhoea and persistent indigestion. A mixture of the inner bark layer has also been used traditionally as a malarial prophylactic. Non medicinally, Marula fruit is also brewed locally to make a delicious tasting beer (the alcohol content of which is variable depending on the length of fermentation process).

The nuts, which are present within the extremely hard outer kernel, are also high in oils and proteins which are either consumed as is (provided you can crack the kernel), or pressed to create a traditional meat preserve or perhaps less commonly to be used as facial moisturiser.

More commonly, Marula fruit is best known in the making of Amarula liqueur, which is undeniably an important aspect of any African safari adventure (regardless of the time of day). The citrus flavour of the fruit has also resulted in the making of various fruit juices, jellies, fruit preserves, and tasty jams.


Marula jam, a sweet and delicious addition to any pantry.


Amarula, a liqueur that has become one of South Africa’s proudest exports.

Whether human or animal, traditional or commercial, it is no surprise that the Marula tree is described as being the tree of life for its endless qualities. Next time you’re on safari during summer, be sure to ask your ranger to point out a Marula tree, and even to taste the fruit, you wont be disappointed!

About the Author

Alistair Smith

Guest contributor

Alistair guided at Londolozi from late 2016 to late 2017. Despite only a short stint here, he made a great impression on the guests he drove and formed a great bond with tracker Euce Madonsela. His photography is excellent, and is a passion ...

View Alistair's profile


on The Tree of Life

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Alison Smith

wow bring on the Amarula!

Jenifer Westphal

Beautiful blog Alistar! So cool to be at Londoz to see the elephant herds enjoying this fruit! We had fabulous experiences with the herds as a result. In Namibia, we watched a bull shake a tree to enjoy eating as you described. Thank you for a great blog!

Wendy Hawkins

Thank you Alistair for that interesting blog. Have a great week 🙂

Roxanne Reid

Super story about a tree – sometimes the animals hog the limelight! Can you mention one specific marula where you often see leopards?

Marinda Drake

Lovely blog. Interesting facts and folklore. I love Marula trees and have got one growing in my garden.

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