Botany Blueprint: The Lipstick Tree

Specimen #26: Lipstick Tree (Bixa orellana)

The fruits from Bixa orellana, a small tree native to tropical America, are designed with exhortations. Two distinct messages are delivered in succession: first, a threat; then, an invitation.

A heart-shaped capsule is the first thing a forager will notice. Covered in spines, the fruit is a warning: noli me tangere—protecting the seeds as they mature. As the lips begins to open, an entrance appears with a different message: come in, come feast—a varnish of red seeds covers each half of the gaping mouth. The color red attract birds, and birds are the tree’s preferred seed dispersal agent. A mature seed pod remains affixed to the tree, its red seed beckoning, until the capsule dehisces (dries), at which point the seeds are dislodged. They fall to the earth, opening up dispersal to ground-dwellers as well.

The capsules are never alone on the branch—they develop in clusters of six, eight, twelve—and once mature, the gaping apertures open further and further. Flaunting mouths of red seeds, the withering fruits chatter about the forest’s affairs from the tree canopy. Give them a cauldron and they’re witches; a mirror and they’re aging divas.

A gem on the tongue, a jewel to the world—the seeds are known as “red gold” in parts of South America, where Bixa orellana seeds are a lucrative export. They are the source of annatto, an additive that’s used to color food such as popcorn, cheese, and Chinese spare ribs. Extracted from the red pericarp that surrounds the seeds, annatto coloring is a deep yellow-orange. Sometimes it’s used in place of saffron. The plant’s ethnobotanical uses are not new—annatto extract has long been used by indigenous Caribbean and South American cultures to flavor, heal, and paint—faces and bodies included. When applied directly, its color is red.

Handling the seeds, it’s impossible not to come away a bit ruddy—the powdery residue quickly takes to skin, hair, and fabric. I collected Bixa orellana pods in Hawaii, where it was balmy. Seeds tumbled into my hands and my fingers gathered them into bags. I wiped the moisture from my forehead and dismissed mosquitoes from my cheek. I applied lip balm with my finger. Leaving the orchard, my face was painted, my lips were red. And thus it was evident what weighed in my satchel, and how the Lipstick tree got its name.

Thank you for reading Botany Blueprint, an inquiry into the form and function of seeds and fruits, and a photographic survey of botanic design. Today’s post is the last of the series published on Imprint. You can follow the project’s developments—including a forthcoming book and new seed pod profiles—on my website: annalaurent.com.

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