Bixa orellana: Lipstick tree

Family: Bixaceae
Common name: Lipstick tree, Achiote

After ignoring it for too long, India is now slowly realizing the value of this humble Lipstick tree that has many and varied uses. They are small trees that can grow to a height of 8-10 meters with broad oval leaves having wavy margins. The tree has a highly branched brown stem, that’s strong and brittle almost to the very tip.

The flowers are white or pink, growing in large clusters at the tip of the stem. But what makes the tree unique are the lovely red fruits, that grow as spiny capsules at the end of the stem, thinner end pointing upwards. Each fruit contains waxy membrane covering containing many small red seeds inside it.

There are some rarer variants that have green and yellow fruits as well, but the seeds inside are red in these variants too.

All little children in Indian villages would have played with the deep red stain that covers the seeds of the lipstick tree. They are also used to color beverages, and draw bindis on the foreheads of women. This dye called Annatto, a natural deep-red color that is used all over the world, in coloring food like ice creams, cheese, butter, meats and condiments.

They are also used in cooking special dishes like ‘Chicken in achiote and Caldo de Olla’; known for their deep red color. The dye is used in cosmetic products like lipsticks, nail polishes, soap, hair dyes and paints.

The fruit of the tree is not edible, but Annatto is edible and extensively used. Annatto is derived from the thin waxy coating that covers the seeds. But for ease of extraction, the seeds are dried and powdered. Solvents are used to draw out the dye from these powdered seeds.

Though lipstick tree is native to South and Central America, it is now cultivated in all continents, growing exceptionally well in warm tropical weather.

In olden days, Annatto from lipstick trees were used as face paint to ward of evil spirits, and also as ink for writing. In Ayurveda it is used in treating worms, skin diseases and wounds.

Propagation is from seeds. When mature, the fruits split open releasing the seeds. Lipstick trees can also be propagated through stem cuttings, which is more effective way of propagation since the trees grown from cuttings fruit earlier than those that grow from seeds.

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