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Lost Crops of Africa: Fruits, Volume III
Not for nothing is marula (Sclerocarya birrea) dubbed “food of kings.”1 In the giant triangle from Cape Verde in the west to the Horn of Africa in the east and to the Cape of Good Hope in the south, its prized fruits and macadamia-like seeds are in demand. Many Africans consider a gift of marula nuts a sign of signal friendship. In some societies, the tree ranks as a major food supplier, its economic and social importance being such that they are said to have a “marula culture.”2
Marulas are plum-sized stone fruits with a thick yellow peel and translucent white flesh. Many are eaten fresh but most are processed into things such as beverages, jams, and jellies. Although the succulent pulp has its own flavor, writers searching for a frame of reference have variously described it as being like litchi, apple, guava, or pineapple. Regardless of taste, the juice is nutritionally important, containing as much as four times the vitamin C of orange juice.
The kernels inside the stone that is found at the center of the fruit are also eaten. They too have high nutritive value, not to mention a delicate taste and such exceptional oil content that they burn like a bright candle. These nuts provide tasty sustenance for both human and beast.
Given these products, marula is at once a fruit tree and nut tree—a sort of tuck shop on a trunk. It is also a good food-security resource. Especially significant in this latter regard is the fact that it provides food during the season when grain stocks are low and other crops have yet to reach harvestable form. It is also significant that the nuts store so well they provided nutritious food long after all else is gone.
The living tree is remarkable in its own right. When fully grown it is large and shady. People genuinely like having it around for its shade and beauty as well as for its fruits. When farmers clear the land, these trees are often all they leave standing. Marula has long been also planted deliberately.
This is a common Bantu description of marula. It is, for instance, the name given it by the Tonga, who live in Mozambique as well as in the neighboring parts of South Africa and Zimbabwe.
This has been said of the Phalaborwa, for example. Krige, E.J. 1937. Note on the Phalaborwa and their marula complex. Bantu Studies 11:357-366.