Bixa orellana is species from a plant family not yet featured on Botany Photo of the Day, the Bixaceae or achiote family. Today’s photographs are courtesy of Ian Crown, of the Puerto Rican fruit farm, Panoramic Fruit. Ian also contributed the following commentary:
“I first spotted this plant on the slope below where we have our killer bee hives (most if not all honey bees in Puerto Rico are Africanized) and I was struck by the similarity between the distinctive spiky red rambutan we have all over the farm and the spiky hot red seed capsule of the achiote, or Bixa orellana. I remembered years earlier being told that the same red color known as annatto in jello was being used to dye the spare ribs at a Chinese restaurant we frequented. Seeing the source plants for this food and cosmetic dye growing in the wild was a kick and I took photos whenever my trips coincided with the striking purple flowers or hot red seed capsules. The achiote is found scattered all over the Caribbean along roadsides and seems to spread by seed. It is a beautiful shrub when covered with the hot red pods and many leave them as an ornamental component in their landscape.”
“The seeds, when exposed to the air, are almost impossible to handle without getting orange to red stains on your fingers, face, clothes… The pigment instantly dyes everything it touches and I needed to explain this to my wife before she held up the seed capsule for a photo. My manager says that the seed is used in some cooking and it probably contributes color as well as phytochemicals to the finished product.”
I always appreciate an opportunity to link to Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages, and Gernot doesn’t disappoint with his page for Bixa orellana. Included on the page are the etymology of the name, links to recipes, and an excellent overview of plant-based dyes (along with additional photographs).
Wikipedia also makes mention of the ethnomedical uses of the species, including use of the dye as a body paint (hence an alternative common name for the species: lipstick plant).