Free Beer From A Multi-Purpose Tree

The Marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) along with other food plants like the mango (Mangifera indica), pistachio (Pistacia vera), cashew (Anacardium occidentale) and pepper tree (Schinus molle) are all members of the Anacardiaceae family. The marula is characterised by resin ducts in the bark, separate male and female trees, edible kernels and the production of fleshy fruits. They are deciduous trees reaching approximately 15 metres in height. The green fruit turns yellow when ripe and is about the size of a plum. Under the leathery peel is a translucent whitish flesh, high in vitamin C (194 mg per 100g) (van Wyk 2005). Each fruit has a single nut or stone, which contains 3 protein-rich edible kernels. Distribution of the tree is limited by the occurrence of frost.


In many rural areas indigenous trees are cut for fuelwood, but the marula tree is often retained in homesteads, fields and schools as it is one of the most useful trees of the African savannah (Shackleton et al. 2000). The marula has many important uses. These include the consumption of fresh fruit and kernels, the extraction of oil from the kernels for cooking or cosmetics, the harvesting of leaves and bark for traditional medicine, and the use of wood for fuel, fencing and carvings. One of the more unusual uses of the bark is to help decide the gender of an unborn baby.

The inner fruit is tart and juicy. It can be very refreshing when eaten on a hot day though there is not much flesh to bite into. It is also frequently made into jam. The kernels are difficult to remove without breaking and it is a skill to have the knack of doing this with two rocks. In old times the Tshivenda people would pierce meat with the kernels and this apparently helped to preserve it for a longer period. Elephants, antelope and baboons enjoy eating the ripe fruit.

Alcoholic Use

The enjoyment and company, that comes from sharing naturally collected and traditionally-made marula beer cannot be added up by an accountant, but is an integral part of local culture and social relations in Limpopo and Mpumalanga Provinces of South Africa. It is a way of building family ties and saying thank you to neighbours and friends for helping during the tough times. A household may brew as much as 50 litres for a marula party (Shackleton 2005). Some of the brew might even be left or poured on an ancestor’s grave to show gratitude and respect. In some areas the first brew is given to the traditional authority but some say that this practice is dying out particularly as people have since 1998 begun to sell the beer rather than give it away for free (Shackleton 2005). In the vicinity of Phalaborwa women will collect the wild grown fruits and sell to the manufacturers of Amarula lique which is distributed worldwide. The trade in traditional marula beer occurs in Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Madagascar Zambia and Zimbabwe.