How I wish I could share with you the feel of these light and delicate as a powder puff, little bixa pods. The Lipstick Tree, Bixa orellana, (achiote, annatto) is my last revisiting of previous plants this week. It was another early favourite of mine and is a really delightful tree, both pretty and very useful. These bright, softly prickly pods give us the dye annatto which is used as a food and cosmetic colouring, notably in Red Leicester Cheese. I first wrote about it back in April last year, in the post “The Lipstick Tree Pod and Fake Blood” here .
Bixa orellana is native to southwestern Amazonia, having developed from Bixa excelsa, a forest tree and probably “domesticated” during the Paleolithic era. Colonists then introduced bixa to Africa, Asia, and Polynesia, where it was cultivated, more as a decorative tree than a useful one.
The dye stuff ( Bixin) is in the tiny seeds which, when crushed, give this intense creamy russet colour. Annatto dye is made by crushing the seeds and soaking them in water. This is then allowed to evaporate and can be powdered or used as a colouring paste.
Indigenous Rainforest tribes used annatto seeds as a preferred colouring for foods, for body decoration, and as a “paint” for artifacts, manuscripts, and murals dating back to the ancient Mayan Indians. I also read that the body paint may well have provided sun protection as well as healthy tan, (hmm.. another possible cottage industry for me). The entire plant was employed for various medicinal uses, including the inevitable aphrodisiac, as an astringent, to treat skin problems and for almost every other malady known to man. But I have been thinking what a curious thing it is in some ways to colour food? The ancient Mayans associated the red colouring with sacrificial blood and religious significance but the whole psychology behind present day food colouring is interesting .. and for another post..
The pods are lined with a fine papery membrane and the seeds are held in two groups of 15 to 20 seeds. A newly opened pod contained a small amount of water which perhaps keeps the seeds moist… curious. I am also not sure what function this red colouring has for the dispersal of the seeds. Questions …questions….
I had made a pencil drawing of the open pod before, but as colour is really the signature of this little tree, a colour study was also needed. I was planning to produce my very own genuine annatto ink with which to execute a small and perfectly appropriate drawing but so far the seeds of 2 pods don’t seem to be quite enough. However my hands now look as though I have a serious nicotine habit, so perhaps the tanning lotion is not such a good idea.