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What Is Bixa?

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  • Written By: Henry Gaudet
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2014
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The bixa — also known as Bixa orellana, achiote, annatto and the lipstick tree — is a bushy shrub or small tree originally native to Latin America. In the 17th century, Spanish explorers carried the plant to similar warm regions around the world, such as Africa, the Carribean and Southeast Asia. The leaves, bark and roots of the shrub have been used in a wide range of traditional herbal cures. In some regions, they frequently are planted as landscaping shrubs, but the bixa is most often grown for its seeds, which are used to produce a yellowish-orange pigment called annatto or bixin.

Native to the warmest regions of North and South America, the bixa has been cultivated around the world. In southern portions of the United States, the shrub is most often ornamental. In other regions, including Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, the Caribbean and Phillipines, it is grown primarily to harvest its seeds to make annatto.

Bixa shrubs are evergreen, covered in glossy, broad, pointed leaves. A mature bixa can reach anywhere from 5–30 feet (1.5-10 m) tall and can live for as long as 50 years. The shrub is densely covered in pink or white flowers that produce prickly, heart-shaped pods, each filled with about 50 seeds. As much as 600 pounds (270 kg) of seeds can be harvested from one single plant.

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Annatto is one of the world’s oldest known pigments and has been used for centuries. Native Americans made a paste from annatto for war paint. It has a bright orangey-yellow hue and is used around the world to dye textiles, paints, cosmetics, polishes and foods. In the U.S., beta carotene is more commonly used to color foods, but an interest in natural ingredients has led many manufacturers to consider using annatto. Annatto sometimes is used as a spice as well, and it can be used to season food as well as color it. It sometimes is used as a less expensive alternative to saffron.

Paste made from bixa has been used for centuries as a sunscreen and insect repellent. It also has been used as in traditional herbal remedies for constipation and respiratory complaints. Nausea and similar stomach complaints have been treated with a tea made from bixa leaves. Roots, bark, pulp and seeds have been used to treat everything from minor cuts and burns to fever, diarrhea, jaundice, snake bites and leprosy. Consultation with a medical professional is recommended before using these substances to treat any condition.

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