Ancestral Achiote

By Danielle Cruz

Aug 3 2023

In many Caribbean and Latin American households, most of us have known of achiote our whole lives. Whether it was ground into powder, infused into oil, or acknowledged as an ingredient in Goya’s sazón packets, this common red seasoning is the reason why nuestra comida nunca la falta sazon o color! Before it can reach your tastebuds, you’re already digesting it with your eyes and nose.

Achiote, or annatto, has a broad geographic footprint far beyond what I initially imagined. From the Caribbean Islands to Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and Ghana, this small tree or shrub has united us for centuries. Bixa, the only genus of the Bixaceae family, gets its name from the Taino word for the plant, bija. The genus has five species: B. arborea, B. excelsa,  B. orellana (achiote), B. platycarpa, and B. urucurana. Bixa orellana was grown and exhibited this summer in the New York Botanical Garden’s African American Garden celebrating the Caribbean Experience. This tree reaches a mature height of approximately 5 meters (16.5 feet), with leaves truncate to cordate, sprouting pink, white, or yellow flowers with white, gray, or purple stamens. The subspherical to cordate fruits with slender spines bear the seeds we cherish for their pigment (Baer, 1976)

The first written historical record of achiote in the Americas was recorded in Christopher Columbus’ diary on October 11th, 1492 in his correspondence to the Castilian royals. He documented his arrival to the Bahamas, land stewarded by the Guarani people, noting, “Some paint themselves white, others red, and others of what color they find. Some paint their faces, others the whole body, some only round the eyes, others only on the nose”(Columbus, 1492). This red pigment was made from Bixa seeds. Another notable primary documentation of Bixa is credited to Francisco Hernandez, the first Spanish naturalist to document plants an danimals of the Americas in 1594.

As you’d expect, the colonization of indigenous lands, veiled as discovery, paved the way for the international trade and capitalization of many plants. Achiote was no exception to this phenomenon as it traveled the world, popularized as a food and clothing dye and as an inexpensive alternative to saffron. “It did not take the Spanish explorers long to find a use for this powerful coloring matter… throughout Europe and in the United States, tons of it are imported annually”(von Hagen, 1940).

The red substance that is concentrated in the seed coat of the plant is called bixin, and has been used in many indigenous practices as it often symbolizes blood and is celebrated as a “foundation of life and power” (von Hagen, 1940). The Caribs’ reasoning for painting their bodies was symbolic but the pigment also functioned as insect repellent as it was prepared in plant, palm, animal oils, and resins.

The medicinal uses of the plant were not limited to the seeds, as indigenous tribes understood the healing properties of the whole plant for centuries. In Piura (Northern Peru) the Tallana and Yunga tribes made tea from the young shoots to treat skin problems, fever, and dysentery. Common uses amongst most tribes in the Caribbean and Latin America include, but are not limited to, an aphrodisiac, vaginal antiseptic, astringent, treatment for liver disease, anemia, and an aid to digestion. The Cojodes tribe of Venezuela utilized a concoction of the flowers and/or roots as a purgative and to treat colic in newborn babies.

It’s no surprise that a plant with such a wide range of medicinal uses would be considered magical as well. In many myths, “Bija holds great importance in the origin of world creation; more specifically the sun and cultivation of plants” (Baer, 1976). Painting  the body during a ceremony would occur at many pivotal stages of life, such as birth, pregnancy, hunting, war, and death. A hunting charm practiced by the Caribs would fertilize the soil with the dead body of a large snake, such as a boa, where they would then plant Caladium bicolor. Once sprouted, the tuber of this plant was mixed with bija and used as body paint. This charm “toelala” translates to “ghost seed” and was meant for the hunter to harvest the spirit of the snake, binding their souls, harnessing their fearlessness and strength.

As someone of the Puerto Rican diaspora, I often long to be reconnected to the land that bore my ancestors. Herbal medicine, healing each other with food, and tradition becomes a portal that can bring us home again. Achiote being a lifeblood for many indigenous groups effectively represents how connected we all are. Our colorful past paints our future as vibrant as achiote stains on brown skin, the red pigment reminding us that our blood is rooted in a sacred earth.

A Closer Look

Dani Cruz is a summer intern in the Urban Foodways Internship program. Generous support for the program is provided by the Mellon Foundation

Baer, Donald Franklin. Systematics of the Genus Bixa and geography of the cultivated Annato tree. University of California, Los Angeles, Ph.D. Thesis. 1976
The Journal of Christopher Columbus, 1492. Accessed August 1, 2023.
von Hagen, Victor Wolfgang. Achiote, the Blood Tree. Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 41 (484): 81-86. 1940.
Annato, on the Tropical Plant Database. Accessed August 1, 2023.