Bixa orellana
Plant with flowers and developing fruit

Bixa orellana L.

Heather Newman
Bixa orellana
Plant with developed fruits and flower

Description: Botanical Characteristics

Bixa orellana L. is a shrub or bushy tree which ranges from 3 to 10 meters in height.  Its glossy, ovate leaves are evergreen with reddish veins; they have a round, heart-shaped base and a pointed tip. With a thin, long stem, the leaves are between 8 and 20 cm long and 5 and 14 cm wide. The twigs are covered with rust colored scales when young and bare when older.  Bixa’s flowers are pink, white, or some combination, and are 4 to 6 cm in diameter.  From the flower protrudes a striking two-valved fruit, covered either with dense soft bristles or a smooth surface. These round fruits, approximately 4 cm wide, appear in a variety of colors: scarlet, yellow, brownish-green, maroon, and most commonly bright red. When ripe, they split open and reveal a numerous amount of small, fleshy seeds, about 5 mm in diameter and covered with red-orange pulp, the embryo of which is poisonous (Chopra 1949).

Origin and Distribution

Bixa orellana can be found in regions spanning the globe.  Grown from either seed or cutlings, B. orellana requires full sunlight and protection from the wind (Morton 1974).  The plant grows equally well in lowlands and mountainous regions or areas of higher elevation (Bruggeman 1957).  Native to the tropical American area, B. orellana is found in largest quantities from Mexico to Ecuador, Brazil, and  Bolivia.  This plant is cultivated in warm regions of the world, such as India, Sri Lanka, and Java (Wolf 1997) mainly for the dye which the seeds yield.  Bixa has been found in and about the towns of the Philippines (Quisumbing 1951), southeastern Africa (Williamson 1955), and Dominica (Honychurch 1980), and is commonly planted in Florida as an ornamental.  There are a variety of common names for B. orellana because it flourishes in a variety of places.  It is most frequently called “annato” or “achiote” in North America.  Some of its other common names around the world are as follows: “changuarica,” “k’u-zub,” and “pumacua” (Mexico), “annato” and “urucu” (Brazil), “urucum” (Germany), “roucou” (Dominica and the French West Indies), “achiot” (Colombia), and “arnotto” (Amerindian).

Table of Medicinal Uses

Ailments Country used Remedy How to Use References
Aids in healing of minor wounds and burns, prevents scaring and blisters   Mixture of red pulp and oil Apply to skin Leeuwenberg 1987, Morton 1981, Quisumbing 1951
Ailments of the womb or uterus and a female aphrodisiac   Decoction of leaves and red coloring matter Drink Morton 1981
Antidote to prussic acid poisoning Northwest Amazonia Dye Drink Morton 1981, Schultes & Raffauf 1990
Anti-inflammatory   Decoction   Honychurch 1980, Martinez 1959
Asthma, pleurisy, labored breathing   Decoction of leaves Drink Morton 1981
Astringent   Pulp surrounding seeds   Quisumbing 1951
Bring out measles quickly, relieves stomachaches and asthma   Seed pulp dissolved in warm water Drink Morton 1981
Burn treatment Uruguay Seeds ground and boiled in oil Apply to burns Quisumbing 1951
Certain skin diseases Philippines Red, resinous substance of seeds   Quisumbing 1951
Antipyretic and antiperiodic Philippines Root-bark   Quisumbing 1951
Cleanse from poisoning and to refresh   Leaves in baths Go in bath Ayensu 1981, Honychurch 1980
Diabetes, flu, venereal diseases West Indies Aqueous and rum infusions of root Drink Ayensu 1981
Digestive properties   Root   Schultes & Raffauf 1990
Diuretic, purgative, treats gonorrhea   Gum made from crushed leaves mixed with water (ingest) Swallow Martinez 1959, Morton 1981, Quisumbing 1951
Diuretic, treatment of jaundice, diabetes, influenza and venereal diseases Trinidad Root decoction Drink Morton 1981
Dysentery Yucatan Root decoction Drink Morton 1981
Febrifuge Cambodia Leaves   Quisumbing 1951
Fevers Philippines Root-bark   Quisumbing 1951
Halt diarrhea and shrink hemorrhoids   Decoction of empty seed capsule Drink Morton 1981
Headaches   Leaves oiled Apply to forehead Leeuwenberg 1987, Morton 1981, Quisumbing 1951
Inflammation, colic, or the heat   Leaves (3-7) boiled with sugar Drink Ayensu 1981, Honychurch 1980
Jaundice remedy   Decoction (sweetened) of seeds Drink Ayensu 1981, Morton 1981, Quisumbing 1951
Kidney diseases   Pulp surrounding seeds   Quisumbing 1951
Leprosy treatment Central America Oil derived from seeds   Chopra 1949, Morton 1981, Quisumbing 1951
Liver trouble Venezuela Decoction of leafy branch tips Drink Morton 1981
Oral and throat inflammation   Decoction of leaves Drink Morton 1981
Purgative in dysentery French Guiana Seed infusion   Quisumbing 1951
Snake bite   Leaves   Quisumbing 1951
Sore throat   Decoction of Leaves Gargle Morton 1981
Stomachache   Pulp   Morton 1981, Quisumbing 1951
Stops nausea and vomiting Surinam Decoction of leaves Drink Morton 1981
Throat relief Philippines Mix dye with coconut Apply to throat Quisumbing 1951
Worms for children   Decoction of Leaves Drink Ayensu 1981, Honychurch 1980
Bixa orellana
Plant with mature fruit and flower

Food and Other Uses

The dye obtained from the pulp of the B. orellana seed (called bixin) is used all over the world as a red-orange dye for coloring rice, cheeses, soft drinks, oil, butter, and soup.  The dye is also used in some regions to dye textiles (Morton 1981; Ledin 1952) and the Sionas and Secoyas color fabrics and weapons with it (Schultes & Raffauf 1990).  In the Philippines, the red pulp from the seeds is used in the as polish for russet leather (Quisumbing 1951) and the seeds are ground and used as a condiment (Magness et al. 1971).  Various indigenous groups paint their hair and bodies with the pulp to repel insects and protect from sunburn.  Bixin was also the original Amerindian warpaint (Mabberly 1987).  The seeds are given to bulls to make them aggressive for bullfighters and are taken by indians as an aphrodisiac (Morton 1981).  A fiber may be obtained from the bark (Quisumbing 1951).  A flagellate of the family Trypanosamatidae has been isolated from the fruit of B. orellana

(Fernandez-Ramos et al. 1999).  Average price of seeds exported from Brazil in 1987 was $1.57 per kilogram, and as production increases, prices remain low (Wolf 1997).  It has been found recently that particle attrition and impact rather than solvent extraction is a more cost efficient method for processing the red carotenoid bixin (Passos et al. 1998).

Bixa orellana
Paste with coloring from B. orellana seeds (bixin)

Chemical Constituents

Bixa orellana exhibited some level of antifungal activity when a group of Latin American plants were subjected to screening for antifungal activity (Freixa et al. 1998).  In another experiment, the lipid fraction of B. orellana seeds was extracted using n-hexane and isolated by thin-layer chromatography; it seems that Bixa seeds contain a higher concentration of delta-tocotrienol than any other vegetable species (Frega, Mozzon & Bocci 1998).  Recently, three apocarotenoids were isolated from annato (B. orellana) and synthesized.  They were: methyl (9Z)-8’-oxo-6, 8’diapocarten-6-oate (2), methyl Z)-10’-oxo-6, 10’diapocaroten-6-oate (4), and methyl (9Z)-14’-oxo-6,14’-diapocaroten-6-oate (5) (Haberli & Pfander 1999).  In another experiment, three minor cartenoids were isolated from the seed coat of B. orellana fruits by chromatographic methods and, for the first time, geranylgeraniol has been found esterified with a carotenoid carboxylic acid (Mercadante, Steck & Pfander 1999).

Literature cited:

Bruggeman, L. 1957.
Tropical Plants and Their Cultivation.
New York: 157, plate [222].

Chopra, R. N. 1949.
Poisonous Plans of India.
Delhi, India: 203-210.

Fernandez-Ramos, C., F. Luque, C. Fernandez-Becerra, A. Osuna, S. Jankevicius, J. Jankevicius, M. Rosales & M. Sanchez-Moreno. 1999.
Biochemical characterisation of flagellates isolated from fruits and seeds from Brazil.
Fems Microbiology Letters. 170 (2): 343-348.

Frega, N., M. Mozzon, & F. Bocci. 1998.
Identification and estimation of tocotrienols in the annatto lipid fraction by gas chromatography mass spectrometry.
Journal of the American Oil Chemists Society. 75 (12): 1723-1727.

Freixa, B., R. Vila, L. Vargas, N. Lozano, T. Adzet & S. Canigueral. 1998.
Screening for antifungal activity in nineteen Latin American plants.
Phytotherapy Research.12(6): 427-430.

Haberli, A. & H. Pfander. 1999.
Synthesis of bixin and three minor carotenoids from annato (Bixa orellana).
Helvetica Chemica Acta.82 (5): 696-706.

Honychurch, P. N. 1980.
Caribbean Wild Plants and Their Uses
Canada: 16.

Mabberley, D.J. 1987.
The Plant Book.
Cambridge, MA: 70.

Magness, J.R., G.M. Markle, C.C. Compton. 1971.
Food and feed crops of the United States.
Interregional Research Project IR-4, IR Bul. 1 (Bul. 828 New Jersey Agr. Expt. Sta.).

Mercadante, A., A. Steck & H. Pfander. 1999.
Three minor Carotenoids from annatto (Bixa orellana) seeds.
Phytochemistry.52 (1): 135-139.

Morton, J. 1981.
Atlas of Medicinal Plants of Middle America.
Springfield, Illinois: 572-573.

Morton, J. 1974.
500 Plants of South Florida.
Miami, FL: 33.

Morton, J. & R. B. Ledin. 1952.
400 Plants of South Florida.
Coral Gables, FL: 25.

Passos, M., L. Oliveira, A. Franca & G. Massarani. 1998.
Bixin powder production in conical bed units.
Drying Technology.16 (9-10): 1855-1879.

Quisumbing, E. 1951.
Medicinal Plants of the Philippines.
Manila: 623-624.

Schultes, R. & R. Raffauf. 1990.
The Healing Forest: Medicinal and Toxic Plants of the Northwest Amazonia.
Portland, Oregon: 109-111.

Williamson, J. 1955.
Useful Plants of Nyasaland.
Zomba, Nyasaland: 23.

Wolf, M. A. 1997.

Other Useful Resources:

Ayensu, E. S. 1981.
Medicinal Plants of The West Indies.
Michigan: 54-56.

Leeuwenberg, A.J.M. 1987.
Medicinal Plants of The Tropics.
Netherlands: 119.

Martinez, M. 1959.
Plantas Medicinales de Mexico.
Mexico: 24-26.

Meyer, C. 1977.
The Herbalist Almanac.
Illinois: 40.

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