The (False) Marula Tree

One often forgets and overlooks the importance as well as the role that various tree species play within the environment and specific ecosystems. Not only do they supply us with oxygen and store carbon but they also increase wildlife habitat – creating specific zones which certain species favour and where they will most likely occur.

The subject of Botany is extremely complex and diverse, particularly here in the Lowveld, and especially when you have two tree species that look almost identical in colour, shape, size and growth form. The two species I am referring to here are the iconic Marula Tree and the lesser-known False Marula Tree. Although not related in any way whatsoever, these two species are practically indistinguishable from one another.

Both of these species are widely distributed across South Africa, occurring in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Mpumalanga as well as Limpopo and further northwards in countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

There a few noticeable and marked differences which separate these two species of tree – namely the bark and the leaves as well as the fruit that the tree bears.

Firstly, the outer bark displayed on the Marula portrays a grey-brown hue, has a rough/coarse texture and flakes off in relatively small, patchy, rounded sections which gives the tree a mottled appearance when aged. On the other hand, the False Marula’s outer bark has more of a shiny grey to brown hue and possibly the most noticeable difference is that the outer bark flakes off in relatively larger pieces, creating irregular, darker patches.

The leaf structure of both trees is once-divided compound and they both have one single terminal leaflet but the Marula has 3-8 leaflet pairs whereas the False Marula has 1-5 leaflet pairs.

The fruit of the Marula is single-seeded, smooth-skinned, fleshy, almost spherical and changes color from green to yellow once it has fallen to the ground whereas the fruit that the False Marula bears has an oblong, flattened appearance and a thin fleshy inner layer with the fruits varying from a pale red to dark brown-black colour.

Each species plays as equally important a role as the other and both can be seen frequently when visiting the Lowveld. Thriving in woodland and bushveld areas, these trees are not endangered and thankfully are listed under the status of ‘Least Concern’.

The two left hand photos are the False Marula, the two right hand images are the Marula

By Kaden