Achiote Plant
Achiote Bixa orellana

Bixa orellana

Photo by Jerry & Linda Harrison

Achiote is a distinct shrub or small tree in the family Malvaceae. The Achiote plant grows 6-10 meters tall, and is distinguished by its pretty bright white to pink flowers formed in clusters of 5 at the ends of branches, and especially its fruits—clusters of red-brown seed pods covered in soft spines. Each pod contains many seeds covered in a waxy red aril. Dry pods split open when mature, exposing the seeds. The aril contains carotenoid pigments bixin and norbixin, producing a red-orange color. Each plant can produce copious amounts of seeds.

Achiote is a well-known plant of Tropical America, as it is a source of “annatto”, a natural orange-red condiment also known as achiote or bijol, widely used in culinary dishes in Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean.  It is used as an industrial food coloring for butter, cheese, custard, sausages and other foods.  It is a pleasing seasoning, and can be used to substitute for paprika and saffron.  Achiote paste or sazón is a product consisting of the ground seed mixed with other spices.  Achiote is now cultivated in many other countries with tropical or subtropical climates.

Achiote has many traditional uses as a dye, from red body paint to hair dye, from which comes its common name, the “lipstick tree.” Mayan Aztec civilizations used the seeds from the lipstick tree as ink to write inscriptions. In Panama, the Embera Indians use Achiote seeds to dye Chunga palm fronds for weaving baskets, producing a vibrant red color.

Open dry pods exposing red seeds, photo by Jerry & Linda Harrison