Bixa orellana

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).

Bixa orellana
Bixa orellana

12 responses to “Bixa orellana”

  1. Eric in SF

    I saw this everywhere in both rural Ecuador and Peru. Here is a pod from the Cordillera del Condor in Ecuador:

  2. karen

    Just came back from Mexico, where I saw this plant in the Sierra Madre. Our guide told us that only the important people could use the dye from this ‘lipstick tree’ as body paint because the bronze colour was the colour of the sun, and thus related to the gods.

  3. David Tarrant

    How good to see Bixa orellana posted on this site.
    I first ran into this plant on a visit to Hawaii where it is featured as an ornamntal in many public gardens. And then ran into it again on trips to the Caribbean where I was told of its use as a food dye. I was also told it was the souce of the following.
    This is total trivia, but when I first visited Canada in 1961 it was against the law to sell margarine which looked like butter.
    So margarine was sold in a clear plastic bag which had a small area of dye separately encased within one corner.
    By squeezing this area the dye was relaesed and one massaged the package until the contents turned the clour of butter !!!!

  4. Susan Hall

    Excellent! I’ve always wondered what it looked like ‘au natural’, instead of in a small spice bag. There is a wonderful roasted Mexican pork recipe that includes annatto as an ingredient, it adds an almost turpentine-ish flavor as well as the brilliant red color. Thanks for your excellent posts, I look forward to them a great deal.

  5. Cambree

    This would be great to color your cosmetics “naturally”.
    I’ve never seen such a plant before. Nice to learn something new everyday.
    Also love the link of tropical fruits.

  6. Christiaan

    Annotto is used as a flavoring and coloring agent in lots of Latin American cooking. If you’ve ever had real Mexican Golden Rice you’ve had achiote seeds. It is always great to see the source for our interesting food additions. Thanks!

  7. Dottie

    It’s Thanksgiving time and I am so thankful for BPOD! Beautiful plant! Awesome nail polish too!

  8. elizabeth a airhart

    it is indeed thanks giveing here in the
    the united states
    this is a fine site thank you to so
    many people who visit and comment
    i have all around the world searching
    out todays offering even south africa
    i wonder if revlon makes this shade

  9. Endang, Jakarta, Indonesia

    My mother has this plant in her garden in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. When the flowers become pods, the whole plant is mostly covered with red color of the pods surrounded with green leaves. It is so beautiful, that one day a foreigner came by her house just to take photographs. The seeds can be easily planted. Thank you for the nice pictures and also the article.

  10. Er.We

    I really like the red fingernails – in context with the plants properties as dye, and as an colourwise accent in the photograph.

  11. Carolina

    Yes, that’s achote or achiote in Peru, mostly used for cooking, and also in the food and cosmetic industry… nice photo and great info! I had never seen the flower…

  12. Alina

    It was nice to see again such a beautiful flower!
    An indigenous community in Ecuador (Tsachila), use the seeds to dye their hair (see video).
    Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!

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