Leaf of the Day: Back to the Bixa

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.

Pretty pink flowers, photo September 2008.

The Softly Prickly Pods, March 2009 (they were redder when slightly younger) .

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.

Lipstick Tree Pods and Seeds

Watercolour on Fabriano HP, size 10″ x 6 “

Leaf of the Day: Lipstick Tree Pod and Fake Blood

For over a week now these strange pods with their soft prickles have been sitting quietly on the kitchen unit like little stranded sea creatures. Pedro had shown me this tree some time ago, and breaking open a pod, had asked me to crush the seeds between my fingers. The little dull red seeds exploded with a shocking red colouring, like a dense cadmium red, quite beautiful and almost bloody. It didn’t surprise me to discover that the Aztecs used the juice of the lipstick pod seeds to turn their ritual chocolate drinks blood red.

So this is the open pod of the bixa orellana, the Lipstick tree. Other names are annatto or achiote. I had heard of the food colouring annatto, it is used in Latin American cooking, but had no idea that it came in this exotic packaging.
However this gorgeous red colouring is used widely for, as of course it’s name implies, cosmetics, textiles, food and as a wonderful traditional hair dye by the Tsáchila people of Ecuador.

photo Patricio Realpe from Wiki here

“Achiotl” was made into an ink used for 16th century Mexican manuscript painting and Mayan scriptures, and, when the Aztecs were not using real blood, it served as a symbolic substitute for their rituals, no doubt to the great relief of the odd virgin or two.

Here is some grisly blood letting for Tezcatlipoca, the Jaguar god, who looks unlikely to be fooled by mere annatto juice. and a beautiful Mayan Manuscript from the Bridgeman Library here

Here in USA, the rubbery bland stuff they call Cheddar cheese is, unsuccessfully, helped along with annatto to try to make it look appetising but it is also the colouring for traditional English Red Leicester cheese.
Here at the home of Sparkenhoe Cheese in Leicestershire UK they are adding the annatto with, to my personal taste, a more appetising result.

Before embarking on the drawing I made a few sketches of the pods. At the moment the tree only has old pods so I am looking forward to the flowers and new bright red pods. I may even make some of my own hand pressed annatto ink to use in recording some of my experiences here, which, to date I am glad to say, have been slightly less alarming than those of the previous visitors from Spain.

Lipstick Tree Pod