Sclerocarya birrea, the marula, is a medium-sized dioecious tree, indigenous to the miombo woodlands of Southern Africa, the Sudano-Sahelian range of West Africa, and Madagascar. It belongs to the same family, Anacardiaceae, as the mango, cashew, pistachio and sumac.
The tree is single stemmed with a wide spreading crown. It is characterised by a grey mottled bark. The tree grows up to 18 m tall mostly in low altitudes and open woodlands. The fruits are used in the liqueur Amarula. The distribution of this species throughout Africa and Madagascar has followed the movement of people as they migrated around the continent. It has been an important item in their diet since time immemorial. The history of the marula tree goes back thousands of years. Archaeological evidence shows the marula tree was a source of nutrition as long as ago as 10,000 years B.C. In the Pomongwe Cave in Zimbabwe, it is estimated that 24 million marula fruits were eaten. Not only the fruit, but also the nuts, which are rich in minerals and vitamins.
When ripe, the fruits have a light yellow skin, with white flesh, rich in vitamin C – about 8 times the amount found in an orange – are succulent, tart with a strong and distinctive flavour. Inside is a walnut-sized, thick-walled stone. These stones, when dry, expose the seeds by shedding 2 (sometimes 3) small circular plugs at one end. The seeds have a delicate nutty flavour and are much sought after, especially by small rodents who know to gnaw exactly where the plugs are located.
The bark is used both as treatment and a prophylaxis for malaria. An infusion of the inner bark of the marula tree may be applied to scorpion stings and snake bites to alleviate pain. The leaves are chewed on to help indigestion and to treat heartburn. Marula oil, made from the seed kernel, can be used as a type of skin care oil.
Other products of fruits and the tree are useful in crafts and agriculture. Gum exudated from the stem is mixed with water and soot to make ink by certain tribes in the region. The bark also yields a red-brown dye used in colouring traditional craft ware. The fruit infusion is used to bathe tick-infested livestock and is regarded as a potent insecticide.
Almost anyone who has read a travel brochure about Africa has heard of elephants getting drunk from the fruit of the marula tree. The lore holds that elephants can get drunk by eating the fermented fruit rotting on the ground. Books have been written asserting the truth of the phenomenon, and eyewitness accounts of allegedly intoxicated pachyderms have even been made. There is however, nothing in the biology of either the African elephant or the marula fruit to support these stories.
The first flaw in the drunken-elephant theory is that it's unlikely that an elephant would eat the fruit if it were rotten. Elephants eat the fruit right off the tree, not when they're rotten on the ground. Elephants will even push over trees to get the fruit that they cannot reach with their trunks, even when rotten fruit has fallen to the ground.
Through calculations of body weight, elephant digestion rates, and other factors, studies conclude that it would take about 1.9 liters of ethanol to make an elephant tipsy. Assuming that fermenting marula fruit would have an alcohol content of 7 percent, it would require 27 liters of marula juice to come up with that 1.9 litres of alcohol. Producing a litre of marula wine requires 200 fruits. So an elephant would have to ingest more than 1,400 well-fermented fruits to start to get drunk.
It may make for a good story and a durable myth, but science suggests you're not likely to see a drunken elephant sitting under a marula tree.
However there are documented stories of Asian elephants getting drunk. Not from fermented fruit but by raiding villages and consuming the villigers rice wine. The intoxicated elephants got very aggressive, caused major damage and killed a number of people.
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