Sclerocarya birrea (marula)
Marula is an African tree, the juicy fruits of which are highly prized by humans and other animals.
Sclerocarya birrea (marula) (Photo: CC by 3.0 license)
Sclerocarya birrea (A.Rich.) Hochst.
Least Concern (LC) according to IUCN Red List criteria; widespread and locally common.
Wooded grassland, woodland, bushland on rocky hills.
Edible fruits, medicine, timber.
About this species
An African tree with juicy fruits that are much sought after by many local people, marula is a member of the Anacardiaceae, the same plant family to which mangos and cashews belong. Marula fruit is highly prized by many animals, from elephants to mongooses – although the story that they can get drunk on fermented fruit is probably just fiction. The fruit pulp is made into a popular alcoholic drink, known as maroela mampoer or amarula.
Sclerocarya caffra Sond.
Geography and distribution
Marula is distributed from Senegal to Ethiopia and south to South Africa and is also found in Madagascar.
Overview: A tree up to 18 m tall, with a rounded crown (the leafy part of the tree) and cracked, grey bark. Trees are either male or female.
Leaves: Divided into 7‒21 leaflets with separate points of attachment along a central axis.
Flowers: Small, whitish-purple to red, in tight groups on long stalks (male flowers) or in clusters of 1‒3 (female flowers).
Fruit: Yellow, round or egg-shaped, 2.5‒5.0 cm across, with a juicy flesh surrounding a hard stone.
Marula fruit is prized by many African people. It has a delicate nutty flavour and contains a higher concentration of vitamin C than oranges. The stone is high in protein, and the seed oil contains antioxidants.
A decoction of the bark is used medicinally against malaria, scorpion and snake bites, dysentery, diarrhoea and haemorrhoids. An infusion of the fruit is used to bathe cattle with the aim of destroying any ticks present.
The wood is used for furniture, planks, carving and utensils. Rope is made from the inner bark, and the bark also yields a red-brown dye used in traditional crafts. The nectar attracts insect pollinators, and marula is often planted to attract pollinators to farms.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.
Eight collections of marula seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.
Marula can be grown from seed or from sticks planted during the early rainy season. It can grow up to 1.5 m in a year but will not tolerate frost.
This species at Kew
Sclerocarya birrea is grown in the behind-the-scenes Tropical Nursery at Kew.
Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Sclerocarya birrea are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these specimens, including some images, can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.
Specimens of marula wood and bark and a box of marula-flavoured biscuits are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment.
Beentje, H. J. (1994). Kenya Trees, Shrubs and Lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi.
Coates Palgrave, K. (2002). Trees of Southern Africa, 3rd Edition. Struik, Cape Town, Johannesburg.
Kokwaro, J. O. (1986). Anacardiaceae. In: Flora of Tropical East Africa, ed. R. M. Polhill. Balkema, Rotterdam.
Sacande, M., Sanou, L. & Beentje, H. J. (2012). Guide de Terrain des Arbres de Burkina Faso. Kew Publishing, Kew.
Wickens, G. E. (1995). Potential Edible Nuts/Edible Nuts (Non-wood Forest Products 5). Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.
Wyk, B-E. van, Oudtshoorn, B. van & Gericke, N. (1997). Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza, Pretoria.
Kew Science Editor: Henk Beentje
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell
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