Annatto, Achiote, or the Lipstick Tree

Bixa orellana

Is it a beautiful ornamental or a possible invasive pest? Where I live now, with many below freezing days of winter, this lovely tree has no chance of becoming invasive because it’s not cold hardy. So, I am going to rate it as a beautiful ornamental. In fact, I have to grow it in a pot that I can cart in and out of my greenhouse on a mover’s trolley as needed.

Until recently, it never even occurred to me to try to grow this beauty in my mountainous region of North Carolina. However, I have set upon a journey to grow as many spices as I can, understand their uses, and appreciate the cultures that first brought them to our attention.

The annatto tree and spice is a great place for me to start my journey because it is one of the few spices native to the Americas. No, it doesn’t come from the part of North America where I live. But it did grow like a native in the landscape of my childhood.

Stained Sidewalks

I first encountered this tree growing up in Southern California. My dad used to take me walking along the sidewalk-lined suburban streets of our Orange County neighborhood. The area we lived in was “well-established”. That’s a nice way of saying it had a lot of older homes that weren’t as eye catching as the McMansions beginning to pop up in tracts on all the empty lots nearby.

Personally, I loved where we lived though because every home had a variety of mature landscaping plants. There was lots of eucalyptus, lemons, oranges, avocados, olives, persimmons, figs, pomegranates, jacaranda, and more.

One house had a wall of annatto trees growing so thick across the front lawn, you had to try hard to see the house hiding behind. I suspect that was what the owner wanted since their home was on what had become a busy road as all the new shopping centers started to move in.

That area of the sidewalk seemed constantly stained red from the spiky seed pods that fell, cracked open, and then after a few rains, were ground in by the feet of pedestrians like me. A few times, I collected some seeds still intact. I remember trying to use them as my own homemade version of sidewalk chalk.

In a fit of recent nostalgia, I scoured the Falling Fruit site (a resource for urban and suburban food foragers) to see if anyone reported those edible seed pods still falling on the sidewalk of my youth. Unfortunately, no one has reported them.

It could be that my memories have outlived those trees which are only reputed to have a 20-25 year productive life. Or, perhaps, they grow on renewed by self-seeding. Maybe passerbys today still smash those seeds into sidewalk stain as I once did, never realizing the culinary value falling at their feet.

The Secret Ingredient

Despite the fact that I grew up on “ethnic foods” as a resident of Southern California and must have had more than my fair share of dishes seasoned with achiotte paste or the commerical version called sázon, I never connected that plant to its culinary applications until I became a cheese maker.

When I made my first cheddar at home, I was shocked to discover it had a pale whitish-yellow color and not the rich orange I had been expecting. A little research revealed that annatto was used a colorant to make cheddar appear orange.

After that I experimented a bit using the annatto seeds, also called achiote when used as a spice, as a colorant and to flavor rice and chicken dishes. In my experience, it isn’t particularly strong flavored on its own. Yet, it seems to somehow enhance the flavor of other things it also seems to make the fats in foods seem more supple and smooth and less oily.

Growing Your Knowledge of Annatto

In yet another phase of my appreciation and understanding of this sidewalk-staining, spice-emphasizing, cheese-colorant, I recently learned that those towering trees that turned a California lawn into an impenetrable forest, can also be kept compact and grown in containers.

As such, I now have a specimen growing in my greenhouse. In the not to distant future, since this plant is purported to grow quickly, I’ll know a lot more about how to use it and why it is so deserving of a place of honor in the home spice rack.

In the meantime, here are some articles I have found helpful in my quest to better understand this beautiful spice plant.

General Information

Growing It

Using It

Note: That beautiful feature image came by way of JoaoBOliver from Pixabay.

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