Spiky pods’ flesh widely useful

Bixa Orellana. Photo: Getty Images
Bixa Orellana. Photo: Getty Images
The winter garden glasshouse may be closed for now but as life grows on there are still many interesting plants to share with you.

Just inside the east wing is a fairly large shrub with spiky seed pods that are splitting open to reveal their bright red seed. It is Bixa orellana, commonly known as the lipstick tree.

Bixa is an evergreen shrub or small tree native to tropical parts of Central and South America. It can grow up to 6m in height but can be easily pruned.

Throughout the year, flushes of attractive pink flowers are arranged in terminal panicles. Bristly spiny fruit follows, green to start then becoming reddish-brown to bright red. Once ripe, the capsules split open to reveal seeds in a bright orange pulp.

The pulp, called annatto, was extracted and used as clothes dye and body paint, food colouring such as for margarine, flavouring and insect repellent. Traditionally, the plant was used medicinally for treating intestinal worms, lowering fever and improving digestion but its medicinal properties are poorly understood.

Annatto is also used by the modern cosmetic industry in a range of products, including nail gloss, lipstick and soap. Bixa orellana is still used widely in cooking and a wide range of industrial uses, from natural dyes to colour food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products.

Garden Life is produced by Dunedin Botanic Garden.

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