Native to the Caribbean region, Mexico, and Central and South America, the annatto tree bears spiny red fruits that contain numerous seeds covered with a waxy red paste. Although the fruits are inedible, the seeds and paste (known botanically as arils) have many medicinal and culinary uses.
One of the plant’s common names, achiote, comes from the Nahuatl (an indigenous language spoken in Central America) word achiotl. The name lipstick tree is said to refer to the traditional use of the bright red seed paste as body paint. Spanish explorers introduced the plant to Asia in the 17th century, and today, annatto is commercially cultivated in its region of origin, as well as in India. The major exporting countries are Peru and Kenya.
Common Names: Achiote, Annatto, Lipstick Tree
Description: Evergreen small tree or shrub, 6 to 24 feet tall; spirally arranged leaves with dark green tops and gray-green undersides; panicles of fragrant pink flowers; greenish brown or red fruits have numerous seeds with bright orange-red fleshy coats
Hardiness: To Zone 11
Flowering: Late summer or fall
Parts Used: Seeds and seed pulp, leaves, and roots
Range/Habitat: Native to the Caribbean region, Mexico, and Central and South America
Annatto seed paste is used as a coloring for margarine, cheese, microwave popcorn, and other yellow and orange foodstuffs. In its pure form, margarine is a white substance, developed in the 19th century as an inexpensive substitute for butter. In the United States and elsewhere, dairy farmers concerned with possible competition from margarine promoted laws that banned the addition of color to this product, hoping to distinguish it from real butter.
When these laws were eliminated, food companies began to enclose coloring packets with their products, and annatto was one of the important ingredients used for this purpose, as it is considered a safe additive to food. Annatto is widely used in Caribbean and Latin American cooking as a dye, flavoring, and spice.
The herb’s earthy flavor complements many meat dishes, as well as rice and beans. Annatto paste, a popular Mexican flavoring, typically contains annatto, coriander, cumin seeds, oregano, peppercorns, and garlic. The spices are ground together and then blended with bitter orange juice or vinegar to make a marinade.
The herb may have anti-inflammatory, diuretic, laxative, and expectorant properties. Annatto seeds and leaves have been used internally to treat indigestion, fevers, and intestinal parasites and topically to treat burns. The leaves have also been used to treat heartburn and stomach disorders, and in the Amazon region the sap from the leaves is used to treat eye infections.
The astringent red seed pulp is used to treat measles, as a purgative, and for stomachache. A beverage made from the seeds and leaves is reported to be used as a female aphrodisiac, and a drink prepared from the roots was traditionally used to treat dysentery, jaundice, diabetes, and influenza.
As synthetic colorings face stricter regulation and consumers favor more natural ingredients in their foods and cosmetics, annatto is gaining importance as a dye.
How to grow it
This small, tropical evergreen tree or shrub requires a frost-free humid climate, evenly distributed rainfall throughout the year, and full sun. Gardeners in southern Florida or Hawaii can grow annatto outdoors; in Zone 10 and colder, annatto can be grown indoors in a large container. Provide well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil.
Under favorable conditions, annatto begins fruiting about 18 months after planting, and full crops of seeds are possible in 3 to 4 years. To propagate annatto, sow seed from freshly gathered ripe seedpods outdoors in fall, or take woody stem cuttings.