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.

New Lab Member

A beautiful Tucson sunset tonight + iPhone portrait mode + a smidge of the secret Adobe Lightroom sauce = impromptu photo shoot!

Please welcome the new member of XWC Lab, a new LAB member! Meet Lani, my new 2 year old yellow lab! Lani came to me via friend of a friend who was looking to rehome her.

She couldn’t be a more perfect dog! She’s still pretty puppy-like, has no bad habits at all, loves people, loves dogs, loves to chase the ball and bite the hose water. As I type she’s holed up in the bedroom devouring a rawhide chew. We even made a new dog friend in the neighborhood and they’re already besties.

Here’s a few more.

And here’s some derp:

Song of the day is in honor of Lani’s new name, which is Hawaiian for “Star” (I like stars ok?). Iz’s version of “In This Life”.

Congratulations to Dr. Lauren Schatz!

Resident pyramid expert Dr. Lauren Schatz defended her thesis work today, despite pandemic pandemonium. The field has decided to accept her (with minor revisions), and she will be joining the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico later this year.

We’ll miss her a lot, but every wavefront sensed by MagAO-X will have her fingerprints on it. Well, not literally, that’d be bad optical science-ing. But you know what I mean.

We had all kind-of forgotten how to do the in-person rituals of academia, but we “reserved” a “conference room” and used a “projector.” We also set up Zoom, for good measure (and for everyone beyond the tiny occupancy limit imposed by These Unprecedented Times).

Masks were worn by all non-presenters, fear not.

Best wishes in all your future endeavors, Lauren!

Drs. Schatz and Males post-defense. The women of Optics make sashes to commemorate defenses, and this one was made by Dr. Silvana Ayala.

Song of the Day

You’ll find in time
All the answers that you seek
Have been sitting there just waiting to be seen
Take away your pride and take away your grief
And you’ll finally be right where you need to be

“Different Now” by Chastity Belt

Bonus Lauren

Have you ever unpacked a new optic and it turns out it was actually Lauren? (Photo: Jennifer Lumbres)

In defense of the “Steward oranges”

Shortly after I began my Ph.D. studies at Steward Observatory, I noticed that the historic dome building (where they gave me my first homely office) was ringed by orange trees.

“Don’t try eating them,” I was told. “They taste terrible! They’re not edible; they’re only, what’s the word, decorative? Ornamental?”

In this post, I will seek to rehabilitate the reputation of the much maligned Steward orange.

I have been undertaking progressively more intricate cooking projects over the course of the last covid, and after SeriousEats featured a recipe for cochinita pibil on its homepage I knew I had to try. Cochinita pibil is a pork dish from the Yucatán region of México, best known to Americans as “where Cancun is.” The Seville oranges used in it are known for being sour, bitter, and generally unpalatable on their own, but impart a distinctive flavor to the dish. I tried finding them at local Mexican grocery stores, but struck out.

But… aren’t the Steward oranges sour, bitter, and generally unpalatable? Could they be the oranges I’m looking for? Fortunately the campus arboretum has cataloged every notable plant on campus, and I had only to ask:

Armed with this information, I went to harvest some ingredients. However, a problem arose.

Undaunted, I returned under cover of darkness with an improvised professional harvesting tool.

The first thing I made with my sour oranges was some quick-pickled onions (another SeriousEats recipe). They were delicious. No food coloring required!

Of course, juicing a bunch of oranges means you have a bunch of orange rinds left over. The Seville orange’s peel is full of flavor compounds, with writers sometimes calling it the “orangiest” orange. I couldn’t let that go to waste! Seville oranges are prized in the UK for use in marmalade, but, quite frankly, I don’t eat much marmalade. So I made candy instead.

That’s already two ways to eat the Steward oranges, and we haven’t even gotten to the main event yet. In cochinita pibil, the bitter (or sour, or Seville) orange juice is used in the marinade alongside a laundry list of spices—but no hot chilies. The flavor of the final dish is a bit smoky and earthy, and fairly orange in color (thanks to achiote), but you’ll have to apply hot salsa to taste.

After a tedious overnight wait, it was time to parcel up the meat and veg. Though I’m not digging the traditional pit, I can still use banana leaves. Fortunately, Tucson’s excellent international supermarket had them in stock.

Trussed up and placed on a tray, it was time to grill. Or, I guess, smoke. (The grad-student budget version of a smoker is a grill plus a lot of babysitting.)

Success! Some corn tortillas and pickled onions were produced, and tacos were had by all. A poll of the individuals present for this pork fest indicated broad approval for this cochinita pibil recipe. More importantly, there were no leftovers.

Not bad for a sour, bitter orange!

Song of the day

In honor of our first 100ºF day of 2021…

“Sunny” — Boney M.