Annatto or Achiote, Bixa orellana

Bixa orellana growing as an ornamental in Costa Rica.

Bixa orellana is a shrub or small tree native to tropical parts of Central and western South America – now widely distributed throughout the tropics as an ornamental or for commercial seed production – that is the source of the natural dye called annatto in English (from the Carib word for the plant), achiote in Spanish (which comes from the Nahuatl word for the shrub) and urucú in Portuguese (Brazil, from the Amazon region Tupi-Guarani language). It is sometimes given the common name of lipstick tree. This woody plant, that is one of five species in the only genus in the family Bixaceae, is hardy in zones 10-12.

Annatto comes from the waxy covering on the plant’s seeds. The carotenoid pigments bixin and norbixin are primarily responsible for the red-orange color. Indigenous peoples from Mexico to South America used this to make red body paint and lipstick, as well as using it as a spice and other plant parts for a variety of medicinal purposes. Annatto is also used in many traditional dishes from this area to provide both a yellow to reddish-orange and subtle flavor, and is often used to color and flavor rice in place of the much more expensive saffron. The Spanish and Latin American seasoning sazón is made from achiote seeds, cumin, coriander seeds, salt, and garlic powder. Before synthetic dyes were available it was used for coloring fabric and paints as well as foodstuffs. This natural dye is one of the most important natural food grade colorings (FDA GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status), still used in many commercial products including butter, margarine, cheese, other dairy products, bakery items, salad dressings, snack foods and chorizo. Both oil- and water-soluble extracts are available commercially as an alternative to synthetic beta-carotene. It is used in the cosmetic industry to a much lesser degree. The main commercial producing countries are Brazil, Peru and Kenya, with the latter two the main exporters to the US and Europe, respectively.

The waxy covering on the seeds of Bixa orellana (L) are used to make annatto or achiote (C) that is used for coloring many food products (R).

Plants have glossy, heart-shaped leaves.

This broadleaf evergreen plant grows 20-30 feet tall under ideal conditions. It is generally multi-trunked with smooth pale to dark brown bark that often becomes fissured with age and inner bark with orange sap. The branches are greenish and scaly when young and ringed at the nodes. The simple leaves are arranged spirally. Each glossy, pointed ovate leaf is cordate to truncate at the base where it attaches to the long petiole which is swollen at both the base and end.

Bixa orellana flowers have five petals and many stamens.

Plants bear terminal clusters (branched panicles) of 8-50 bright white to pink, or sometimes purple, flowers. Each fragrant two-inch flower generally has five large petals (occasionally more or fewer) and numerous central stamens with violet anthers, so it resembles a single wild rose. Pollination is by native insects, as well as by honeybees.

Flowers are followed clusters of globose, red-brown, two-valved capsules covered in dense, soft spiky bristles that resemble the bur of a chestnut tree (Castanea spp.) The pods dry out as they mature 3-5 months after pollination, to eventually split open to expose the numerous seeds. Each angular, obovoid seed is covered with a thin, bright orange to red fleshy coating and small whitish aril. Plants are productive for 15 to 20 years.

Flowers are followed by clusters (L) of globose pods densely covered in soft spines (LC) that turn brown as they mature (RC) and split open to release the seeds covered with red, fleshy coating (R).

Grow B. orellana in full sun and well-drained soil.

Growing B. orellana outdoors requires a frost-free, warm, humid climate, a sunny location, and well-drained soil, but it could be cultivated as a container plant to be moved indoors during cold weather in other areas. It makes a very ornamental specimen plant or can be grown as a hedge, and responds well to pruning to keep it small enough to grow in a large container (18-30” wide and 14” deep). It can be a conversation piece on a patio or deck during the summer, but must be brought inside before the first frost to overwinter in a bright, heated space. It is tolerant of nutrient-poor soil so does not require much fertilization. This plant can be propagated from seed or stem cuttings, but those from cuttings flower more prolifically and bear fruit earlier than seed-grown plants. Few nurseries in the Midwest offer this species, but they are available from some commercial growers in Florida and seeds are frequently offered for sale online from individuals or companies.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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Additional Information

  • Bixa orellana – on the Missouri Botanic Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening website

12 comments

  1. Interesting article. This would be a fun plant to watch throughout the flowering to seed process. Every phase seems to be so distinctive.

  2. The most interesting things about this plant are that it has names that come from indigenous languages and that annatto is more natural than beta carotene. I thought beta carotene came from carrots, but I guess it’s synthetic. It would take a lot of artistry to grow this plant in Wisconsin. I wonder, like the previous commentator, if it is safe to grow around cats. I also wonder if anyone grows this plant commercially in the United States, just in case annatto becomes hard to import from the countries where it is mainly grown. I’ll be happy now to see “annatto” on food packaging.

  3. What a beautiful plant. I knew annatto was a natural colorant, but I didn’t know it came from such a lovely ornamental tree. Some day when I have a greenhouse I’m going to try growing one in a container.

  4. Very interesting fact, that there is a natural coloring source that come from Mexico and South America. To bad there is not other colors that are made naturally. The plant would be a very beautiful to plant in Wisconsin.

  5. This is an interesting article. As a healthcare provider and someone with a personal interest in nutrition I like to learn about what goes into our food. It would be nice to know what specific food dyes it is used for. I think it is also a pretty tree.

  6. Good to know that this natural coloring is available for use in our foods vs the synthetic coloring. Any idea what the cost difference is to a producer such as a cheese factory?

  7. I have not heard of this plant before but it appears to be an important part of many of the foods we eat. The seed reminds me of pomegranate seed. It is interesting that so many plants we don’t know about make our lives more comfortable.

  8. This was fascinating. The fact that our Wisconsin cheese is, potentially, colored by the seeds from this plant. And it is totally naturally and safe. Pretty cool.

  9. Are there any known toxicities for pets that inadvertently eat part of the plant if someone were to grow as a container plant?

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