A while back, I wrote a post about a magic tree. A magic penis tree. It was, of course, not really magic at all. It just had such strange, unlikely fruit that it some odd beliefs got attached to it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any magic trees down in the Lowveld. Here’s one.
It’s called a Marula. If you want to be picky, I suppose it isn’t really magic either. But it may as well be, because it is so staggeringly useful that it would be the poster child of the intelligent design squad if they knew about it. Yes folks, it’s time for another Lowveld ecosystem post. I’m doing a tree again. I hope you can contain yourselves.
The Marula is an old friend of ours. A very old friend indeed. Some Marula seed pods left there by humans were found in Pomongwe Cave in Zimbabwe. About 24 million of them. From 10 000 BC. But we’ve been eating them since a little before that, when we were hairier and better at climbing. Some experts think the distribution of the Marula was influenced by the movement of Africa’s Bantu people.
Certainly today the trees are treated with reverence. They are not cut down when other trees are cleared for farming, and among some people, it is taboo to do so. This is quite a sensible way to go about things. Marulas are kind of useful. I’m not even sure where to start. So I’ll start with food.
Marulas are tasty. Which is quite handy, since a tree can produce about 500kg of fruit a year. They’re related to mangos, but have a flavour all of their own. They’re also related to poison ivy. Just saying. But they’re not just tasty; they’re good for you, too. Marula fruit has four times more vitamin C than oranges. They are eaten ripe or ground up to make porridge. They can also be boiled down and made into a jelly that is eaten with roast meat.
And that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. These funny looking things are empty Marula seed pods.
The seeds themselves sit behind hard-to-find trap-doors in the pods hard shell. They might be hard to find, but they are worth finding. They, too, are rich in vitamin C, and they are rich in protein and minerals. Which is a little trying, as they are quite hard to get at. It can take a day to fill up a small tin with kernels.
All this eating stuff is quite nice for the people who harvest them. We humans like to eat. But what we love to do is drink. This is a clip from an old wildlife documentary called “Animals are Beautiful People, Too”, made by the guy who made “The Gods Must be Crazy”.
Sadly it was probably staged. The bush is not filled with drunken animals every year when the Marulas get ripe. There is one animal that really does get drunk on Marulas, though. Us. These fine ladies are making Marula beer.
Marula beer is not drunk-making beer. It is of enormous cultural significance, being used in ceremonies like weddings. If you want to get drunk, you need to find this stuff.
It’s called mampoer. It’s the South African version of moonshine. It tears your throat out on the way down, but you don’t need much. It’s also good for stripping paint.
Bottles with barbed wire around them do not scream urbane sophistication. But fear not. If you want to get fancy, there’s this stuff.
If you ever find any, buy it. Drink it over crushed ice. It really is delicious. And you won’t go blind.
If you drink too much, never fear. A coffee substitute can be made from the skins of the fruit.
But wait, as they say in the infomercials, there’s more. Oil from the kernels makes a very good cosmetic cream. Which is nice if you want to look pretty. If you are pretty enough already, you can cook with the oil or use it as a condiment.
The tree is also good if you’re actually sick. The bark contains an antihistamine, and is used to treat insect and scorpion bites. The bark is good for diarrhoea and dysentery. The tree even has anti-malarial qualities. And if you get heartburn from all the eating and drinking you’ve been doing, the leaves should soon sort you out.
And on we go. You can make rope from the bark, as well as a brown dye. You can mix the gum with soot and water to make ink. And the wood is nice and soft, so it’s good for carving.
And just in case you thought we were done, the Marula can save your life. If you find yourself dying of thirst out in the bush, you can dig up the roots of a Marula and literally squeeze enough water from them to survive.
Phew. That’s just about it.
It’s not just us who like Marulas. Most herbivores love them. Which can be a bit of a problem. Specifically, it’s a bit of a problem that these guys love them.
Marula fruits fall to the ground when they are ripe. It can be incongruously funny to watch a four ton behemoth picking up fruits the size of plums one by one with the tips of their trunks and popping them into their mouths.
But elephants are not always so patient. Sometimes they do this.
It’s hard to believe, what with all the poaching that goes on up North of us, but there are far too many elephants in the Lowveld. Their numbers have been swelled to above carrying capacity by the building of artificial water points. And it’s starting to have an impact.
Every time we go down to the bush, there are fewer big Marulas still standing. But we’ll discuss the elephant issue some other time, when I’m feeling sharper. It’s complicated.
Right now, I’m off to have a nightcap and go to bed. I’m sure I have a bottle of Amarula somewhere….