Desert Hackberry Pie: A Perilous Quest

This is a recipe post in the traditional internet style.

Part I: The Rains

We have had a fairly incredible monsoon season. It just keeps raining and raining here in Tucson, and everything around us is enjoying it. Since this is a science blog, we should start with evidence for these assertions.

The plot shows our last 2.8 years of rain according to our backyard rain gauge. This year, we have had two months which individually exceed all of 2020. Combined those two months exceed all of 2019. And it might not be over.

My house is at the outlet of Ventana Canyon, and the Ventana Wash runs through our backyard. These next two videos are from a game camera we use to monitor the various goings on back there. The first one shows one of our neighborhood bobcats trotting by, with the wash down to just a trickle:

We can go several months at a time with at least some water flowing. Since the Bighorn Fire last year, the flow has gotten exceptionally strong at times due to the increased runoff. Next is just a day or so after the bobcat video, showing what happens after an inch of rain falls in the canyon (same camera, same spot):

Now all of this rain has led to an abundance of rainbows and a wonderful lushness to our desert foliage.

The view towards Sabino Canyon. At left is a big old Mesquite Tree, right (light green) is a very happy Palo Verde tree. In the middle of the frame is the star of this blog post: a thicket of Desert Hackberry.

Part II: The Hackberry

We have two big bushes, and one thicket with several bushes, of Desert Hackberry. Here’s a view from the back of the thicket in the previous snap:

I’ll send you over to the Arizonensis page to learn more about the natural history of this plant. The main takeaway is that you can eat the berries, but I also noticed the butterflies. I actually witnessed the butterfly combat described, and hanging out around the thicket was lovely:

You can hear the running water in the background.

This is the first year we even noticed the berries, and we have TONS. So of course I decided to start picking and, well, we’ll get to that.

Hackberry harvesting. Note the toes.

The above picture shows the fruits of my labor, mid-harvest. This much takes about 30 minutes. We have a saying in our house: “Everything outside wants to kill you, even the plants.” The hackberry is no exception. Thorny, and the berries tend to be embedded behind small twigs and the thorns.

So I ended up spending about 4 hours on labor day afternoon, sun on my back, butterflies flitting about (and fighting), the wash running next to me, picking hackberries. It was wonderful!

Part III: The Guardian

After my wonderful nature-full day, I decided to do a little maintenance in the back yard. The Hackberry thicket tends to get a little overgrown, and I have trimmed it back a few times to keep the lower parts under control. This time I also had in mind that I was now an expert Hackberry picker, and wanted to optimize things.

So I grabbed my big pruning shears and my nata tool and set to work. I had gotten a good chunk out, and was getting down low to go under to cut from the inside out a bit. I stuck the shears in to get a big branch and . . . MONKEY BRAIN CIRCUITS ENGAGED. JUMP JUMP JUMP was the response from my brain as my highly tuned image processing CNN took over when my eyes focused on this:

The biggest freaking diamondback I have yet to interact with personally. Hackberries for scale, and to document how long she was there!

She (I’m going with she) is absolutely gorgeous, and please note just how well camouflaged. And gorged! Her mid region (under the head) looks very bulging, so I’m guessing one of the bunnies that triggers the trail camera frequently is no more. She was also super chill, no rattle, just flicked the tongue and watched.

Here’s the thing: I was within 1 meter of her for several hours. My bare, flip-flopped feet were maybe closer depending on the lay of various branches. She never made a peep, and could have easily struck many times. I feel like I was judged worthy. Or maybe she was just too sleepy to care…

Interlude and Song of the Day

Part IV: The Pie (Finally)

So after all that picking, I next had to clean. Luckily it turns out Hackberries sink. So a water bath for about 1 cup at a time allows lots of the twig and leaf matter to float and be strained out. They are also just large enough that a standard slotted spoon works as a strainer. Perhaps the most tedious part was berry-by-berry inspection to get residual stems off.

After all that, I had a little more than 4 cups of Desert Hackberries!

My harvest.

Now what to do? The internet was not super helpful. Some discussion of foraging and eating them while hiking, a few hints at making energy bars and wine, but nothing really satisfying.

The berries have a hard pit, but you can crunch it and eat it. The taste is complicated: sweet, but with a sort-of green apple + green tea aftertaste or bite (I’m not sure that’s right, but it’s hard to describe). I decided that I wanted to get the pits out, and after a bit of kitchen lab work, found that our food processor handled this perfectly:

in motion

and a salad strainer worked perfectly to drain:


and in the end about 4 cups of berries made 2.25 cups of berry pulp:

The juice that was worth it

Well great. Now we have 2.25 cups of Hackberry pulp but still no clear direction. So we decided to try a blueberry pie recipe because what the hell. It was a bit of a meander, I document it here for posterity.

2.25 cups Desert Hackberry pulp (about 4 cups whole berries)

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 tbsp tapioca flour to thicken (or corn starch)

1/3 tsp salt (cut in half next time)

1/3 tsp cinnamon (tasted like too much before baking, maybe ok after. TBC)

1 tbsp lemon juice. this is common in blueberry pie, but did NOT work here.

1/3 cup granulated sugar (to counteract the lemon juice)

Note: error bars on the above quantities are estimated at +/- 5% unless otherwise specified.

This will fill one small pie pan:

Finally, I dotted the pie with 1 tbsp of butter chopped into flakes. Then baked at 375 for 50 minutes. And here’s the result:

That’s supposed to be a Saguaro.

Verdict: it was ok! We had a friend over, the one who first told us about Hackberries in fact!, and went for it `a la mode. Vaguely pumpkin pie in texture and smell. The cinnamon was a little overdone. The main challenge is to figure out what to do with the green-apple/green-tea aftertaste I described in the fresh berries. I’ve decided that, based on the lemon juice mistake, that the issue might be being to acidic. So note for next time: try adding some baking soda to knock it down.

Plan for next time is to: (1) inspect under all bushes thoroughly and (2) make small batches in ramekins to experiment with different buffers and spices.


It’s now been a couple days and I’m eating the last piece. Also my fingers have started to heal from the thorns, but a few splinters are still working their way out. The pie is still good. I def think the baking soda is worth a shot. I feel like I’m on to something, this might be the pumpkin pie of the Sonoran Desert!

I’ve also been thinking about the snake, a lot. That was quite a scare, and frankly I’m still a bit jumpy outside. But also, we interact with them fairly often up here in the hills. I encounter them when on runs, crossing our driveway, and we had one in our compost bin once. Only one time have I heard the rattle, and that was from a baby that I was chasing away from our front door with a looooooong pole. There’s this idea that rattlesnakes are evolving to rattle less, but I’m skeptical. She wasn’t scared and not rattling because I might hurt her, she just didn’t care. I leave you with this link, and note that “peaceful sighting” is a great way to describe this: Are rattlesnakes evolving to rattle less, or losing their rattles?

The Monsoon Begins

After a long, dry, and recently HOT year, it appears that the monsoon has begun!

Today felt like the first snow used to feel when I lived somewhere more North.

The only downside to the monsoon is that the storms often keep us from operating our sensitive equipment. Here’s a real-time lightning map from this afternoon, showing the storms advancing on Tucson from the South.

Lightning strikes shown as the colored dots, white most recent, getting dark with age. That’s Tucson in the middle of the image.

Thanks to Joseph’s hacking kills, our friendly lab-assistant Vizzy keeps us informed if there is lightning nearby.

We had to shutdown our fancy deformable mirrors and sensitive cameras this afternoon, but there’s always software to debug and documentation to update and tests to study for and referee comments to answer. So we enjoyed the thunder and were happy for the rain.

The Sabino Rainbow made an appearance. I went for a blessedly cool run into the canyon, but didn’t find the end.

The song of the day is about the monsoon rains, and it also needs to be turned into a movie. It sounds like an intense adventure.

Sunset Here But Not There

The sun has just set here in Tucson. But we were supposed to be watching the sunset at LCO tonight, taking our usual break from preparing our instrument for a night of observing. On the schedule, this was to be our first of eleven nights exploring the sky with MagAO-X.

An LCO sunset taken from the Clay catwalk, from what seems like forever ago:

Spoon – “Got Nuffin”

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 45: Telling Stories

This is, officially, the highest numbered “run” post achieved (so far) on this blog. Jhen’s post yesterday tied with the previous record holder, Day 44 from 2015A, what we fondly refer to as The Death Run.

Arizona is opening back up. So, to some extent, is UofA research. Our lab, The XWCL, has been open because of an important project, but only for limited work on one or two things. But starting next week we’ll be able to start paying attention to our other projects, which includes MagAO-X. Still not supposed to meet in person, go to our offices, etc.

However, since we aren’t technically in a “Stay At Home”, I guess this “run” is over. It’s like when we are in the air form SCL to DFW, the telescope time is done, but we still have to clear customs and stay awake long enough to catch the 9:10 flight to TUS. You can still post if you want to, but all of our subscribers should stop expecting daily content.

So we watched “The Rise of Skywalker” tonight. Hadn’t seen it yet — after “The Last Jedi” I just wasn’t motivated enough to go see it in the theater. “Rise” was better than I expected, but still a cluttered mess as far as story telling goes. Too much happens in too many places, with not enough time in between. Remember in “A New Hope” how they actually travel? And the kids play games in the back seat to keep them occupied (there’s even home schooling). Remember how Jedi training was a thing in “Empire”, worthy of half a movie? The conflict scene between Luke and Vader and the Emperor in “Jedi” (the only movie referred to with that single word) was epic, and again was something like half the movie. The sequels just bounce around and try to show us too much with too many subplots. The middle one was especially egregious — the time between events wouldn’t work in even a small U.S. city, let alone a galaxy-scale ecosystem.

Please note: the sequels are at least watchable more than once. Let’s not drag the prequels into this.

The main thing about the sequels that drives me nuts is that they don’t make any sense from a high-level galacto-political sense. I don’t understand why there is a “resistance”. What are they resisting? They won the rebellion, so aren’t they the government now? Sure, sure, you can say they are resisting the First Order. But that’s just it — doesn’t that just make the resistance the military of The New Republic? Why do they never have help? Where’s the actual regular Republic Navy? This is a whole thing that is never explained to any level. Part of my complaint derives from having read Zahn’s “Thrawn” novels when they first came out, and were supposed to be canon. The takeover of The New Republic was part of the story, and well told. The whole expanded universe included this. Characters we know, like Wedge Antilles, are big shot Admirals — not gunners that Lando digs up somewhere. Leia is occupied with politics and governing a galaxy, as you’d expect.

I’m not all complaints though. I think Rey is the best character* of the entire Star Wars universe. Her story is incredibly compelling, and Ridley is fantastic at being the naive reluctant Jedi, and then better at being the badass when her time comes. No spoilers here, but I’ll just say that “Rise” brings the 9 part Skywalker saga to a fitting conclusion, true to its real beginnings in IV. (*Mando is shaping up to be pretty amazing too, from a different point of view).

And, the music is as good as always. Here’s “Rey’s Theme”, by John Williams:

P.S. For future historians, yes, our count is low by one day by the usual rules of run-post-counting on our blog.

MagAO-X 2020A Stay At Home Day 38: Javie Zoomies

I give you a baby Javelina with the zoomies. You’re welcome.

Admittedly, it’s a mild case. But also the itchies. Wikipedia claims that the collective noun for Peccaries is “Squadron”. I’m going with it.

Inspired by the grace and majesty of the Javelina, I give you Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Band”, performed by the U.S. Marine Band.