KEYWORDS: Bixa Orellana, Bixina, Mayan traditional medicine, Skin diseases

Bixa orellana, commonly known as Annatto or Achiote, has been utilized for centuries by ancient cultures who resided in Mesoamerica, mostly as a colouring agent and a medicinal plant. Bixa Orellana, is mostly grown for its seeds, and when they are ripe, they become coated with a red pigment. This extracted pigment is called annatto, and it can be utilized to dye cloth and as food coloring (Dendy, 1966). This ancient plant is utilized today, mostly as a colouring agent for our food.

Botanical Description and Distribution

Achiote is a perennial shrub or tree that reaches 2 to 5 m tall with brown and smooth bark. Its leaves are thin and are supported by long petioles. The leaves are smooth with no hairs on the top and are pale green on the underside. The flowers are hermaphroditic, pentameric, regular, pink or white, and are grouped in panicles. Its nuts are covered with thin and soft spines, which contain many seeds. The seeds are small and covered with an orange pulp. It has a pivoting root and the trunk can reach 20 to 30 cm in diameter at the base (Ocampo and Valverde, 2000; BDMTM, 2009). Due to the diverse environment where this plant grows, Achiote shows great variability. Plants can range from shrubs with green stems, white flowers and yellow or green capsules, to trees with red stems, pink flowers and violet capsules (Ramos-Solórzano, 1991). The colour of its fruits, flowers, shape and the content of the pigment can also vary (Valdez-Ojeda et al. 2008; Nisha et al., 2011).


The Achiote is also known by other names in Mexico such as: Achiotl (Nahuatl); Kiui, Kúxub (Maya, Yuc.). It is native to tropical areas, developing mainly in warm-humid and semi-dry climates (Arce, 2007).

Achiote can be found in the tropics of North and South America, the Caribbean, and the East Indies (Ulbricht et al., 2012). It is likely native to a high Amazon region in Brazil (Molau, 1983). The scientific name Bixa Orellana is derived from the Brazilian word ‘Bija’ that is given to the bushes of this genus and ‘orellana’, due to its Spanish discoverer Francisco de Orellana (Patiño, 1964; Pittier, 1978). Its cultivation has spread widely in the tropics of Africa and Asia, to India, the Philippines and the Hawaiian Islands, even though the greatest amount of production is concentrated in Latin America and the Caribbean (Leal and Michelangeli, 2010).

This plant has adapted to Yucatan’s environmental conditions, mainly in the north areas where rainfall is reduced from 500 to 900 mm annually. It is necessary to support the critical moments of growth and development of this plant, mainly flowering, pollination and fruiting periods (Correa-Navarro, 1995).

Traditional Uses

The Achiote is also known as the seed of fire. At the American level, the Achiote reappears in many other cultures, such as the Mayan culture and in tropical areas. These cultures used the dye from the annatto seeds for adornment in religious or war rights. The Maya referred to the red paint as symbolic of human blood and sacrifice, which was applied to the beams in the ceremonial structures, the costumes of the rituals and censers, and even the whole body was painted so these indigenous people were called in the chronicles with the name of embijados and in North America with the name of redskins (Costales et al, 1996; Fonnegra and Jiménez, 2007; Plunket, 2002). This seed was an important part of the ancient Mesoamerican culture and their rituals.

The inhabitants of the tropical regions exchanged seeds with the inhabitants of the temperate zones, thus its use as a dye and medicinal spread throughout the Americas. The seeds of achiote have been widely used in traditional Yucatecan food, from dye for broths, in the preparation of K’ol, which is a Mayan meal based on corn and achiote and is prepared for agricultural ceremonies. It is also used to colour cocoa and to flavor foods like cheeses and butters (Thompson, 1979; Fonnegra and Jiménez, 2007). In the State of Yucatán, the annatto plant can be found on fences or in small plots (Correa-Navarro, 1995).

In traditional medicine, the seeds are mainly used; but the bark, roots and tender leaves are used in decoction, infusion, syrup, poultice, plasters or various commercial pharmacological preparations such as oil (Fonnegra and Jiménez, 2007). This plant has a great number of medicinal properties that the ancient Mesoamericans utilized.

Modern Uses

The seeds of the Achiote tree are an exclusive source of Bixin, a red orange colorant that is utilized in the food industry worldwide (Carballo-Uicab et al). These are of great agro-industrial value because its seeds have a high carotenoid content, mainly bixin. (Rivera-Madrid et al, 2016). Today, we use annatto to color many of our foods such as cheese. Some seeds contain bixin levels up to 80 percent, however a wide variety of apocarotenoids are also found in the seeds. Bixin plays a large part in the medicinal properties that the Achiote seeds hold.

Achiote seeds are still used in many communities today as a source of treatment for many illnesses or diseases, and in Southern Mexico, this plant is used for smallpox and skin rashes, diarrhea, abdominal pain, indigestion and dysentery, headaches, sore throat, as an abortive, to cure urinary illnesses and against gonorrhea and as an absorptive agent (Rivera-Madrid et al., 2016).

Bixa orellana – History and personal experience of Marina Vera Ku

Looking back at ancient cultures, specifically in Yucatan, after the Spanish conquered the Mayan area, the social stratification between the Spanish and the Mayas was deeply marked. Despite the fact that slavery was illegal, slavery, in regard to money, persists to this day. The poor work for the rich, always. Despite the Mexican constitution recognizing all human beings as equal, being indigenous was a problem to many, and still is.

My grandmother was a “Mestiza,” or multiracial, with a Spanish-like appearance. She had white skin with brown curly hair, and her sister had white skin, red hair, and blue eyes. However, in the 1940’s, when my grandmother was a teenager, she expressed that her family was very poor. They were constantly struggling for their survival needs, especially food. My grandmother and her family did not have the money to buy the expensive and beautiful lipstick that the wealthy Spanish women wore. This was before cosmetic industries began to produce cheap and accessible makeup for all. Back then, women who did not have the money to buy makeup, used the dye of the Achiote seed to color their lips.

At that time, marrying a wealthy man was considered to be every woman’s goal. Therefore, my grandmother and her sister applied the achiote seeds’ dye to their lips, in order to be more “attractive” and find a wealthy man willing to marry them. However, she still ended up falling in love with my grandfather who was not wealthy. Soon after this, the lipstick tree became an important asset for the family. All the foods were delicious because of the Achiote seeds. The B. orellana seeds are utilized mainly as a spice, in order to give flavor to all the different kinds of Maya- Yucatecan dishes. These dishes include “cochinita,” “tamales,” “pollo pibil,” and “pibes.” Many of the Maya-Yucatec foods are a mixture of the Spanish and Mayan cultures. The Achiote plant was also utilized for its medicinal properties in my family and by others. When anyone of my grandmother’s nine children had a cut, the Achiote seeds and the Sabila gel (Aloe Vera) were applied to heal the skin.

Bixin rich seeds of the Achiote tree were used inadvertently for beautification; my grandmother protected her lips from the sun (which is one of the main functions of the Bixin carotenoid). Since women may consume lipstick at the end of the day, it also provides a nutritious antioxidant for consumption.

Artificial cosmetics that people have been applying to the largest organ of the body, the skin, contain ingredients which were found to be toxic (Faber, 2019) and could be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. This remains a scandal of the past and present. The utilization of harmful cosmetics can be minimized with the use of natural beauty products. As I grew older and began to appreciate the wisdom of my grandmother, she shared many experiences of her long and accomplished life. Once, explaining the mysteries of life, she said “sometimes being poor can save your life, and sometimes the poor eat better than the rich, richness is not about having more, it is about having what you need”.


It is abundantly clear that the Achiote tree is so much more than a lipstick tree. Medicinal benefits and the global usage of the B. orellana tree shows the importance of its seeds for many applications. However, very little research has been done to validate the effects of these ancient medicines. Most publications in the area of plant based medicine describe studies performed using the extracts were made from organic solvents and for some reason very few are performed using medicinal potions as described in traditional literature (Bhat et al., 1990; Galvez, et al., 1993; Ryu et al., 2005; Kang et al., 2006; Lima et al., 2006 Carmona et al., 2005; Dong et al., 2006).

From the ancient Mayan culture period to the modern times, medicinal plants have played a major role in all aspects of people’s life in Yucatan. Plant based medicines still provide preventative and curative relief for simple to complex physical and mental disorders. The science of natural products must experience a paradigm shift. This incredible ancient knowledge should not be misjudged or pushed to the side. It should be utilized and recognized for the potential and power it has. Certainly, working with medicinal plant potions is not an easy task, but it is the right thing to do, and doing the right thing has never been easy.

About the Authors

Maria Angeles Poot Cab is a 2016 Graduate of Environmental Biology of the Technical Institute of Tizimin in Yucatan, Mexico. She is a nature lover and very passionate about keeping the Mayan traditions and alternative medicine alive. She is currently in the process of publishing a book on the plant medicines of Yucatan Peninsula.

Victoria Gurevich is a student at Colorado State University, working towards her bachelor’s degree in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability with a minor in Role of Sustainability in Peace and Reconciliation. She has always been interested in natural healing and is currently studying plant medicine in Mérida, Mexico with a hope to pursue graduate school in the near future.

Dr. Ver Ku received her MSc and PhD degrees in Plant Science and Biotechnology at the Centre for Scientific Research of Yucatán (CICY). Her research focused on the chemistry and biological activity of medicinal plants and natural products as well as the validation of medicinal remedies against intestinal infectious diseases. As a postdoctoral fellow at the Dr. Hideyo Noguchi Regional Research Centre, she worked on designing phytomedicines against cutaneous leishmaniasis and is continuing this program at CONACyT. She runs a research laboratory at the Natural Resources Unit for medicinal plants in the Germplasm Bank of CICY and also collaborates with the State Committee of Traditional and Intercultural Medicine in Health, organized by INDEMAYA and the Inter-institutional council for the prevention and control of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.


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