Bixa orellana, commonly called annatto or achiote, is an evergreen tropical shrub or small tree that is native to tropical parts of Central and South America. It has been introduced over time to a large number of tropical areas around the world including South East Asia, India and the Philippines. As a shrub, it typically grows to 6-12' tall, but as a tree will sometimes rise to 20-30' tall. Pointed, ovate to heart-shaped leaves grow to 3-7" long. Ornamentally attractive pink flowers (2" diameter) bloom in terminal branched panicles. Each flower has 5 deciduous sepals and five petals. Flowers are followed by bristly spiny fruit in reddish-brown to bright red capsules. Fruits ripen throughout the year in tropical climates. Each fruit capsule resembles in appearance the bur of a chestnut tree (Castanea). The capsule splits open when ripe to reveal seeds in a layer of orange pulp. Annatto is the name of a tasteless orange/yellow dye extracted from the pulp surrounding the seeds. This dye was used many years ago by indigenous people for a variety of purposes including body paint, insect repellant, food colorant, inks, dyes, sunscreen, soap additives and fabric colorant. It is called lipstick tree because native Americans used it to make red body and lipstick. In the modern world, dyes from this plant are still commercially produced for adding yellow color to a number of food products including chorizo, margarine, rice and cheese. Indigenous people still use the dyes for cosmetics and hair dyes. Bixa orellana is easy to grow in subtropical to tropical climates. It has a fast growth rate. It may be grown for ornamental purposes or for harvest of its fruits. Interesting specimen. Informal hedge. Dried fruit pods are attractive in floral arrangements.
- The seeds like moist, well-drained soil. Prepare a mixture of half potting soil and half sand, perlite or vermiculite. Put the soil in a pot. Water the mixture so that it is moist but not wet.
- Put the seeds on the soil.
- Cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil.
- Water the seeds.
- Place the pots in an area with warm temperatures in full sun or part shade.
- When the seedlings are a few inches tall, they can be transplanted.