Marula or False Marula?

So often one hears people talk about False Marula trees in places like Pilanesberg. The fact of the matter is there are not False Marula trees in those parts of the world. So, what then is a False Marula, where do you find it and how does it differ from a true Marula?

False Marula trees do not occur in the north western parts of South Africa. The tree that people so often refer to as a False Marula in these parts is actually the Live-long that belongs to the same group or genus as the False Marula. Both trees belong to the genus Lannea, which refers to the dense, woolly hairs that cover the young parts of the plants.

Both the Live-long (Lannea discolor) and the False Marula (Lannea schweinfurthii) belong to the same family as the Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), namely the Mango Family (Anacardiaceae). These three trees are characterized by the following common features:

  • Medium to large deciduous trees in bushveld
  • Leaves with a watery latex
  • Berry-like fruits called stone fruits or drupes
  • The strong resinous smell of the crushed leaves
  • Male and female parts on different trees, a condition referred to as dioecious.
  • Compound leaves, once divided with a terminal leaflet, which means that the ordinary leave is subdivided into smaller leaflets of unequal number.

A live-long can be distinguished from a Marula in that the leaflets of the live-long have very short stalks and the leaflets are clearly discoloured being dark green above and silvery grey below. The leaflets of the Marula have much longer stalks and are of an even greyish-green colour on both sides. The leaflets of the Live-long are also much larger than those of the Marula. There are 3-5 pairs of leaflet per leaf in Live-long and
3-7 pairs in Marula. The bark of a Live-long is dark grey and does not flake off in round or square depressions like that of the Marula. The fruits of the Live-long are purple compared to the yellow colour of the Marula fruits when ripe. The fruits of the Marula are also significantly larger; 30 – 35 mm in diameter compared to the 10 x 7 mm fruits of the Live-long.

The actual False Marula (Lannea schweinfurthii) is restricted to the warmer northern and north-eastern parts of the country. The bark flakes of in much longer strips than in the Leaves of the Live-long Marula leaves Marula although the stems of both trees have a mottled appearance because of the flaking off of the bark. The leaves differ from that of the Marula in that it also has leaflets with very short stalks. The leaflets are also larger with a darker shiny green appearance. There are fewer leaflets per leaf (1-3-pairs) than in either Live-long or Marula trees. The fruits of the False Marula are oval shaped, dark red when ripe and borne in long clusters.

All three tree species are typical bushveld trees that provide ambiance and atmosphere to the Bushveld Savanna. In autumn the hillsides of Pilanesberg are painted in warm yellow-orange colours just before the leaves of the Live-longs are falling.