Lipstick tree (Bixa orellana)

Close of up the lipstick tree with its spiky, red heart-shaped pods (c) Sarah Hutchison / WWF-UK

The Amazon rainforest is packed with useful plants that humans have harvested for millennia. And this tree, with its spiky red heart-shaped pods, is probably just as important today as it was 2,000 years ago. But don’t let its name fool you. The so-called lipstick tree does a lot more than it says on the tin – and you can find its traces in some unexpected places...

With roots in the rainforests of South and Central America, this plant’s vibrantly coloured seeds have traditionally been used by indigenous people to make body paint – giving it the name ‘lipstick tree’ in English. But, in Brazil, it’s more often called urucum, after the indigenous name given by the Tupi-Guarani people. Also used to dye clothes and to add flavour to food, the fruit of the lipstick tree is still widely-used in the Americas today.

Despite its name, you’re actually unlikely to find this exotic plant in your make-up bag. But chances are you still come across it day-to-day. In Europe and North America, its seeds are used as a natural alternative to synthetic food colouring, and you can find it in anything from butter and cheese to microwave popcorn and soft drinks.

"Plants like the urucum show how the Amazon rainforest is closer than we often think,” says WWF’s forest programme manager Sarah Hutchison, who took this photo on a trip to Acre. “Harvesting rainforest plants has been important to people since as far back as we can remember, and we’re finding new and interesting uses for them all the time.”

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