The small bixaceae family comprises a single genus, Bixa, with one cultivated species, Bixa orellana, and several wild species in the Amazon basin. The name achiote - in some regions achote - is derived from the Nahuatl name achotl. Other common names: achote, bija, in Puerto Rico; rocou, in Virgin Islands, Trinidad, and Tobago, Cuba, Panama, and Colombia; onoto in Venezuela, annato in Honduras Achiote or achote in Spanish, annatto in English, rocou in French.

Achiote (Bixa orellana L) is the representative of a peculiar family of fast-growing wild plants. Native to tropical America, it reaches three or four meters ( 10 or 15 feet) in height and a diameter of seven or thirty centimeters ( 12 or 20 inches) at the base of the stem. Its root is pivotal, well developed, the leaves are cordate and the flowers are hermaphrodite, pink or white, arranged in terminal panicles. The fruit is a capsule containing thirty to sixty seeds, which are covered by a kind of reddish and waxy pulp, which constitutes the dye called achiote, which contains bixin (to which its scientific name is attributed), a red substance from which the dye is obtained.

At present it is mainly used as a colorant for cosmetics, ceramics, dyeing, and cooking; it also gives color to dairy products, wool, sheepskins, feathers, ivory, and bone; it can be used as an insect repellent and as a chocolate additive. The pulp of the seeds is used in the tropics as a remedy for skin diseases such as leprosy. It is used to heal burns and not leave scars. From the branch is extracted a gum that is similar to gum arabic. The bark has strong fiber, suitable for making pitas.

In the United States, it is also used in ice cream, bakery products, and edible oils. In Latin America it is used as a condiment obtained by frying the seed in fat, thus coloring rice, sauces, stews, etc. If the international market is taken into account, especially that of countries with a highly developed dairy industry, where achiote is widely used in the manufacture of dairy products, the prospects are quite satisfactory.

The main commercial achiote producing countries are Bolivia, Brazil, Ceylon, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru. The largest producers in Latin America are Peru and the Dominican Republic.

Achiote petal.
Achiote flower. Image by Michelli Carmo from Pixabay

In Mexico achiote is distributed in the states of Oaxaca, Yucatán, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Morelos, Veracruz and Tabasco. In the country it is cultivated in a more or less significant way in the state of Yucatan, without having commercial plantations, since these are around the houses of the settlers; it is considered that there are 400 hectares in a dispersed way. In Tabasco it has been observed in the wild and cultivated in family orchards; it is estimated that in the state there are approximately 300 hectares of this crop in dispersed form, mainly in the Chontalpa area.

Four varieties are known: the Indian variety, which is a little pointed, produces white and green flowers; the Peruvian variety has a thick heart shape, is large and flat seeded, with pink flowers and red fruit; the Jamaican variety has red flowers and dehiscent fruit; the Yucatecan Creole variety has small orange or green fruit. The tree reaches commercial production after three years and with agronomic management, it can produce for up to 15 years. It produces up to two tons of fruit per hectare and a yield of 120 kilograms (330 pounds) of paste can be obtained by traditional homemade methods, which is what is used in Tabasco to use it as a condiment.

However, the appreciable of this crop is the content of bixin which has multiple uses as a pigmenting agent and the seed can be used as a meal to feed poultry and achieve natural pigmentation of beaks, feet, skin, and meat of poultry.

By José del Carmen Morales Rebolledo