What Is Annotto – Learn About Growing Achiote Trees

What Is Annotto – Learn About Growing Achiote Trees

By: Teo Spengler

What is annatto? If you haven’t read up on annatto achiote information, you may not know about the small ornamental called annatto or lipstick plant. It’s a tropical plant with very unusual fruit that is used for food dye. Read on for tips on how to grow an achiote tree and more.

What is Annatto?

Before you start growing achiote trees, you’ll want to learn a little bit about the fascinating annatto plant. So exactly what is annatto? The tree is native to South America. The scientific name of this small tree is Bixa orellana, while the common name is lipstick plant. Both annatto and achiote are terms used in the Caribbean to refer to the tree’s unusual seeds or the plant itself.

Annatto Achiote Information

The lipstick tree grows to 12 feet (3.6 m.) tall. It is an evergreen with a rounded canopy of green leaves. It graces your garden with its vivid pink flowers. Each of the ornamental flowers has five sepals and five petals.

Over time, the flowers wilt and seeds develop. They grow in scarlet heart-shaped capsules or pods that look a little like chestnut burs, with many spikey bristles. These capsules split open when they are ripe. The seeds are inside in a layer of orange pulp.

The seeds contain bixin, a bright red carotenoid pigment. The lipstick-red color is what gives the tree its common name. The seeds were once used to dye clothing, but these days serve mostly as a coloring for foods.

How to Grow an Anchiote Tree

If you are interested in learning how to grow an anchiote tree, first check your hardiness zone. These trees can only be grown in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 10 through 12.

Site is also very important. To have the best chance growing achiote trees, plant seeds or seedlings in a spot with full sun. Care of achiote trees is minimized if you select a site with organically rich, well-drained soil. Provide the trees regular irrigation to keep the soil moist.

Other than irrigation and appropriate siting, care of achiote trees doesn’t require great effort. The lipstick plant does not have any insect or disease problems. These plants grow well as specimens. But you can also plant them in groupings or hedges.

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Annatto / Achiote

The crimson pigments and sharply perfumed, earthy flavors of annatto emerge from the pulp that surrounds the seeds, which are secreted in spiny, scarlet heart-shaped pods. The pods grow in clusters that stand out above the broadly fingered leaves of this widely distributed tropical shrub or small tree (Bixa orellana). The seeds are best known by two names, annatto, from indigenous Caribbean languages, and achiote, from the Uto-Aztecan language family, with the latter derived from the Nahuatl term achiotl. The plant, also known as annatto, is believed to have originated in the lowlands of South America and then, perhaps with the aid of early cultivators, spread northward to the Yucatán Peninsula and the West Indies.

Currently surpassing saffron, turmeric, and paprika as the world’s most widely used food colorant, annatto seeds, when soaked in water, deliver both yellow-orange and bright red pigments. The seeds are also used for achiote paste, which originated in the Yucatán and is made by grinding the seeds with other spices and flavorings. For Manteca de achiote, a popular cooking fat in much of Latin America, the seeds are heated with oil or lard until the liquid turns a beautiful orange, then the seeds are discarded.

I first saw cultivated annatto plants in the dooryard gardens of the Ecuadorian Amazon, where the Jivario, Tsáchila, and other local tribes still plaster their hair with the brilliant dye derived from the seeds hence the tribes’ nickname Colorado, or “reddish colored.” The Aztecs added annatto to their thick, syrupy chocolate drinks to strengthen the brilliance of their brews, and today in the Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica, it is used to flavor and color codfish cakes.

The early Spanish, Berbers, Arabs, and Jews who immigrated to the Yucatán Peninsula used yellow-orange achiote as a substitute for turmeric and saffron in their recaudos. These marinades and pastes typically combined achiote with more savory and pungent spices in vinegar or in sour orange or lime juice. The blends, influenced by the newcomers’ own culinary traditions, eventually evolved into the sauces and pastes that brighten such Mayan-adapted dishes as cochinita pibil and múkbil pollo. In Mayan villages I have visited on the Yucatán Peninsula, the crimson, pink, and green profile of the annatto tree brightens the walkways of nearly every dooryard garden, doubling as both an ornamental and a kitchen staple.

Crypto-Jewish spice merchants who helped to colonize Mexico may have been the first traders to send the seeds into the Old World spice networks, for achiote moved along the same trade routes that had long been managed by Sephardic Jews and Arabized Berbers. Traders in Martinique appear to have passed what they called annatto on from Portuguese, French, and Dutch colonies to Europe, Africa, and Asia, which is reflected in the fact that loan-word cognates of achiote are far less common in Old World languages than are cognates of annatto and bija, both derived from the Caribbean language family. Urucul, another indigenous term for annatto, may have originated in the Amazon Basin. It is likely the root of ruku, the term now used in Curaçao liqueur in mixed drinks and marinades.

Today, annatto enjoys a pan-tropical distribution, being cultivated as far away from its natal grounds as China, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines. Once valued primarily as a hair dye, aphrodisiac, and digestive, the utility of annatto as a colorant, in everything from lipsticks, cheeses, sun screens, and red sun dresses and shawls to chewing gums, now trumps all of its other uses.

Achiote Medicinal Properties

    1" >
  • Medicinal action Anti-inflammatory, Antiparasitic
  • Key constituents Bixin, stigmasterol
  • Medicinal rating (1) Very minor uses
  • Safety ranking Safe

Health Benefits of Achiote

The unique combination of bixin, antioxidants, and tannins found in achiote seeds can provide the following medicinal benefits:

Speeding up wound healing. Like most carotenoids, bixin possesses strong anti-inflammatory action, which can soothe burns and blisters on the skin when applied topically.

Treating parasite infections. Achiote is popularly used to eliminate parasites and seems to be particularly effective for relieving the symptoms of malaria.

In addition, the bark and root of achiote has been traditionally used to reduce fever, inflammation, and stomach infections.

How It Works

Over two dozen substances have been isolated from the seeds of achiote, also known as annato however, the industrial and medicinal importance of this herb comes from the high amounts of carotenoids contained in the seeds 1 . Achiote seeds are particularly rich in a orange-red colored pigment called bixin, which is present at levels as high as 80%, but they also contain orellin, which is a yellow pigment.

Although its mechanisms of action are yet to be fully explained, in vitro experiments have linked bixin to the high antioxidant capacity of achiote seed, which may play a role in its anti-inflammatory and wound healing properties 2 . Bixin has also been shown to intercept free radicals generated by commonly used chemotherapeutic drugs, and some studies suggest that supplementation with beta-carotene and achiote can help manage diabetes.

In addition, achiote seeds contain significant amounts of two essential amino acids: threonine, used in the biosynthesis of proteins, and tryptophan, which is transformed into serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), all critical for the well-functioning of the nervous system. The nutritional value of achiote is intensified by the presence of vitamin E (as tocotrienol) 2 , as well as different flavonoids, tannins, sterols, and saponins.

Anti-inflammatory properties are also present in aloe and greater plantain, whereas elecampane and papaya seeds can provide similar antiparasitic benefits.

Side Effects

Achiote is considered generally safe however, it can cause allergic reactions in sensitive people. Symptoms include anaphylactic shock and hives.

Overconsumption of achiote can cause diarrhea and gastrointestinal discomfort.


Although no drug or supplement interactions have been reported for achiote, the herb has shown hypoglycemic effects, so diabetics under glucose control medication are advised to consult to a health professional before consuming achiote in medicinal doses.

While no adverse reactions have been reported, because of the lack of information on achiote during pregnancy and breastfeeding, it is advised to limit the consumption of the herb in women going through these stages.

Annatto Achiote Information: How To Grow An Achiote Tree In The Garden - garden

It is well known that the pre-Columbian Maya colored their cacao beverage bright red with dye from the achiote seed pod. I would call it more a food colorant rather than a flavoring.

Achiote (Bixa orellana), annotto or annatto in Maya ethnobotany.

Achiote (Bixa orellana) is a common bush or shrub around houses throughout Verapaz and Peten areas of Guatemala, especially in Alta Verapaz. I have noticed two kinds of achiote: a less common kind grown between Raxruja and La Union, en route to the Maya ruins of Cancuen, and the more common kind around Chisec, Alta Verapaz (on the highway from Coban to Sayaxche, Peten). Ethnohistorical records document that achiote was grown in these same regions when the Spanish first entered these areas.

My personal interest in achiote is because I have seen it for so many years as I drive along the highways and roads of rural Guatemala. Plus in the years that I did ethnohistorical research in the Archivo General de Indias (Sevilla, Spain) and Archivo General de Central America (Guatemala City), I noticed frequent references to achiote, especially when reading about villages in the Verapaz area.

And since I have been studying cacao, achiote is a natural extension, since achiote and cacao are often grown in the same fields. The Spanish conquerors commented that the Maya flavored and colored their cacao drink with achiote: red cacao drink!

I have seen the English word for achiote spelled and misspelled various ways:

Annoto, annotto, annato, annatto.

Red colorant in pre-Columbian times was also derived from cochinal and logwood.

The prehispanic Maya had three sources of red colorants from natural sources.

  • Achiote, annatto, Bixa orellana
  • Logwood, Palo de Campeche
  • Cochinal, from an insect that lives on cactus plants

Plus of course many other colorants. I list above only the three most common and the three from plant sources. There are also many other plants that give dye of diverse colors and more than three plants that give red.

Be careful with claims that the red color of the Maya temples and palaces came from plants. Merle Green Robertson's evidence at Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico) suggests that the red color of most Maya building exteriors came from clays or minerals. Howver the color "Maya blue" seems to be a mixture of plant dye (indigo) and mineral or clay pigment.

Indigenous woman of Guatemala toasting Achiote.

FLAAR Photo Archive of Maya Ethnobotany

As time and funding become available more photographic coverage of achiote will be added to the FLAAR Photo Archive of Maya Ethnobotany. Presently this archive is primarily devoted to photographing cacao, water lily plants (especially flowers, seed pods, pads) and ceiba (especially the flowers and spines), so the photographs available on achiote so far we consider just snapshots, not formal studio-type photography of the kind that we accomplish with cacao.

I took some seeds of cacao and seeds of achiote from Mucbilha, Alta Verapaz. The cacao sprouted rather easily, but not a single one of the achiote seeds sprouted, even though the farmer kindly gave me seeds from his own seed bank. So we have a dozen young cacao trees now growing in the FLAAR research garden in Guatemala City, but not yet any achiote.

If you wish to join Dr Hellmuth on a Maya ethno-botany field trip, and learn about tropical botany, Maya culture, and digital photography of flowers and nature, you can offer a financial contribution towards a portion of the project costs, plus cover your expenses during the field trip. Field trips can be a long weekend, a week, or 10 days. Please communicate by Skype flaar_mesoamerica or telephone (dial as for a USA number in Ohio) 1 419-823-9218 (our offices are in Guatemala and St Louis but we still use our Ohio numbers).

If you are a student and wish to do thesis or dissertation work on Maya ethno-botany, or if you are a botanist or zoologist in any country, you are welcome to communicate with FLAAR by Skype flaar_mesoamerica. Our field office in Guatemala has two full-time bi-lingual biologists on staff plus the FLAAR Photo Archive of Maya Ethnobotany has an increasing number of professional quality photographs of plants and reptiles.

FLAAR is not a source of funding per se, rather we are a source of assistance and cooperation, with decades of field work experience in all ecological zones of Guatemala. You may wish to have one of our botanists assist you on your field trip. There is no fee for scholarly research under most conditions, though we do ask that you cover the normal day wage, local transportation, hotel and meals of any FLAAR biologists that you utilize while out on a field trip. If there would be shared joint publications resulting from this project, then the cost of the labor (day wage) will be refunded to you by FLAAR. Day wages in Guatemala are reasonable even with working on weekends or nights if necessary.

The Achiote was used by the mayan culture for red dye coloring and flavoring of cacao beverage.

FLAAR also has 22-megapixel medium format digital cameras potentially available, for both studio photography of specimens as well as photography out on location. We have Nikon D300 and Canon EOS 5D plus a 48-megapixel large-format BetterLight (as well as professional quality reprographic stands for scanning specimens at high resolution). Our in-house Guatemalan staff has ample experience in operating these cameras, in our studio or out in the field (all are portable). It costs a lot less to rent these camera systems with a capable Guatemalan operator (who is also a biologist) then trying to bring comparable camera equipment from your home country and dragging it out into the field. Cost for this equipment requires insurance (a binder on your policy) and security (which we can provide) in addition to a nominal use-fee.

Most recently checked May 25, 2010.
First posted January 2008. Updated January 5, 2009. Edited August 24, 2009.

Annatto Achiote Information: How To Grow An Achiote Tree In The Garden - garden

Achiote (Bixa orellana), A.K.A. the Lipstick Tree, is a small deciduous tree native to Mexico, Central and South America. Achiote can grow up to 20 to 30 feet tall if grown as a tree. However, if pruned correctly, it can retain it’s shrubbery height of 12 feet. Throughout the growing season, Achiote produces attractive, heart-shaped leaves and an abundance of light pink flowers. It produces inedible green fruit that, when it matures, turns a brownish-rust in color and is covered with soft, spiky hairs.

Inside of the Achiote’s fruit are an abundance of seeds surrounded by pulp that is a bright red/orange in color. However, the seeds (Annato) are the true prize, as they are used commercially worldwide to create a red dye that is used widely in various types of products such as cheese, rice, butter and even cosmetics.

Visually, Achiote makes an exceedingly beautiful addition to gardens in USDA zones 10-11. Achiote can be grown from seed but propagation from stems and nursery-grown plants are recommended to provide rapid growth and a better fruit yield. In addition to full sun, Achiote prefers well draining, loamy soil and consistent watering. It can be grown in a container approximate to it’s predicted size. Typically, it takes 2-3 years before Achiote will produce fruit.

Achiote has very few pest problems or diseases (powdery mildew is one exception). Fertilizer is not required to grow this exceptionally hardy tree, but a combination of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash will greatly improve your yield and encourage faster growth.

Where To Buy Achiote Plants: