Are you familiar with marula fruit or the marula tree? Marula is a beautiful African tree species that produces aromatic fruits about the size of plums.
You may have heard that marula fruit makes elephants “drunk.” That’s what some of the locals say, anyway, and it’s a popular belief amongst tourists in Africa.
I’ve heard the stories, and I’ve tasted the fruit. However, I wasn’t sure if it really made elephants drunk. So, I did some research and came up with the hard facts. Here’s what you need to know about marula fruit and the tale of drunk animals.
What is Marula Fruit?
Marula trees are widespread across southern Africa, dating back thousands of years. You’ll find them in the Miombo woodland areas, the most famous of which is the Greater Kruger area, one of Africa’s best safari destinations.
The scientific name for the marula tree is Sclerocarya birrea. Colloquially, you can refer to the marula tree as the “elephant tree.” The fruit itself is a yellow color on the outside, with white flesh on the inside.
Facts about the marula tree
Do you want to know more about the source of the marula fruit? Listed below are some interesting facts about the marula tree.
- The marula tree is large and leafy and can grow up to sixteen feet tall (4.8 m). The tree produces marula fruit almost year-round – even in the dry seasons.
- Many locals refer to the marula tree as “the elephant tree” because of the myth surrounding drunken animals who eat the fruit.
- The South African Forestry Group protects and conserves Marula trees under law.
- Some African communities use the marula bark as an antihistamine and as a prevention for malaria. Marula fruit can even treat stomach aches.
Marula fruit characteristics
The marula fruit is incredibly high in vitamin C, containing eight times more vitamin C than oranges. In ancient times, this juicy fruit was a staple dietary component in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa.
As an important part of local diets, the Bantu people carried marula with them as they migrated through Africa. That’s why you’ll now find marula fruits in countries like Madagascar and West Africa.
The nut inside of the marula fruit is full of protein and minerals. The fruit is not only a delicacy for elephants. Impala, kudu, nyala, baboons, warthogs, and other creatures also feed on this delicious treat.
These animals get fallen marula directly from the ground, or thanks to the pachyderms that shake the trees to get the fruit to fall off the branches.
Marula fruit taste, benefits, and uses
Are you wondering what marula fruit tastes like? Well, ripe marula tastes almost tart, with a sweet or sour taste. How sweet or sour depends on its ripeness.
At the center, it has a large walnut-sized stone containing a soft nut kernel. The kernel is highly nutritious and has a rather delicate and distinct aroma. People usually eat this raw or roasted.
There are multiple uses for marula fruit. You can boil the marula skin to brew tea with, or burn it and grind it as a substitute for coffee. You can also extract marula oil from the fruit, which has tons of medicinal benefits.
As previously mentioned, the marula tree fruit makes for an excellent source of vitamins. Additionally, it is rich in oleic acids and other antioxidants, the latter of which aids in the prevention of various diseases, including heart disease. The fruit further offers other health benefits for the bones, skin, hair, and muscles.
Most often, the marula fruit is processed and used in beverages and jellies. In South Africa, it is hand-harvested and turned into the famous creamy drink – Amarula. We will take a deeper look at this in the section to follow.
Amarula Fruit Alcohol: Fact or Fiction?
Like most fruits, marula can ferment to create marula alcohol. The same principle applies to potatoes, which are fermented to create vodka, and apples, which produce cider.
Marula trees are incredibly popular for elephants – they eat the bark and devour the fruit, then spread marula seeds around their habitats. The seeds are even spread through elephant dung.
So, as time went on, elephants and marula fruits became mythically linked. According to some, marula is wildlife booze that gets elephants drunk.
The story goes that wild animals would get drunk by eating the marula fruit that had fallen off trees and fermented while on the ground.
The story was so powerful that it inspired an entire liquor brand – the famous “Amarula” cream, which is a tasty liqueur similar to Bailey’s. For this reason, the Marula tree is sometimes referred to as the Amarula tree. There is also a psychedelically painted elephant on the front cover of the Amarula bottle.
Even the liquor brand leverages the lore of marula to sell bottles of their product. You can see elephants plucking the fruit from trees in Amarula advertisements, hinting at the myth that many Amarula patrons believe in.
Origins of the Animal Booze Story
If you’re wondering if there’s any truth to this tale of tipsy elephants in the wild, here’s what you need to know. The story goes back a long way and has received considerable attention over the years. What started as Zulu folklore became international know-how. It’s a simple narrative.
Marula fruits drop from the tree and slowly ferment on the ground. Because they are so high in sugar, the fermentation process happens quickly.
Animals come past and eat the fruits, sometimes eating great quantities because food can be hard to come by on the savannah. Then the animals become drunk and act a little crazy (like most of us do when we over-imbibe).
Flashback to 1974, when a documentary filmmaker by the name of Jamie Uys produced two documentaries called “Animals Are Beautiful People.” If you haven’t heard of Jamie Uys before, you may be acquainted with his famous film “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”
“Animals Are Beautiful People” was a critical and commercial success, blending stunning Southern African wildlife scenes with comedic relief. The locations in the film include the Namib desert, the Kalahari desert, and the Okavango Delta.
The footage for the documentary, portraying wild animals getting drunk after eating marula fruits, became an immediate hit and even received a Golden Globe award for best documentary. Today, millions of people think that elephants get drunk on marula fruit.
The question is: is it really true?
Do Elephants Get Drunk on Marula Fruit?
Does marula fruit make animals drunk? Sorry to disappoint you guys, but the story is an absolute myth.
Jamie Uys’ footage was completely staged, and the animals were, believe it or not, fed with alcohol. The director and crew first soaked the marula fruits in booze, then filmed the scenes to make the story appear more believable.
Nowadays, misleading an audience in a major film would cause a serious scandal. Back then, we lived in a different world.
Can Marula Fruit Get You Drunk?
Although the story sounds believable, there are many holes in the theory. Firstly, most of the animals that feed on marula trees will pick the fruit directly from the tree branches. Elephants can reach up and grab the lush fruit with their trunks. Naturally, they don’t need to wait until it drops on the ground.
Food is precious in the African savanna. As soon as the marula fruit is ripe, there will be many animals coming out for a feast – not just elephants. So, the marula fruit won’t have time to ferment and become alcoholic. Plus, the animals have no need to eat rotten fruit.
Some theorists believed that the fruit could ferment inside the elephant because it would take up to 48 hours to pass through an elephant’s system. That theory doesn’t hold up either.
In practice, any person (or animal) would have to ingest 25% of its own body weight in fruit (in one go) in order to get drunk. As you can imagine, the chances of that happening are pretty low.
Biologist Steve Morris told National Geographic that there is no scientific evidence pointing to the possibility of elephants getting wasted on marula fruit. According to Morris, “People just want to believe in drunken elephants.” It is a funny story, after all.
Drunk Animals Footage
You can watch a clip of the Jamie Uys documentary below. It’s entertaining, though completely unethical in my point of view.
Animals Getting Drunk on Marula: The Myth
A bottle of Amarula is a classic souvenir to take back from Africa. I know from experience that the marula fruit can get you drunk if you’re swigging from the bottle, yet just biting down on a rotten marula fruit simply won’t do the trick.
Hopefully, debunking this myth about marula fruit won’t deter you from visiting the incredible locations where marula grows in Africa. For a chance to see African wildlife up close, as well as the marula tree, check out these incredible safari deals.