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)

Non-stationary Stationery

One of the most painful things I’ve had to do in graduate school is writing. It’s probably the worst necessary evil in academia. I’ll take documentation and giving presentations any day over writing papers. I’ve finished writing the first full draft of the MagAO-X Fresnel modeling paper and it’s going through the comment cycles. But this entry is not about academic writing, it’s about a writing the world as a whole has slowly started to forget about.

My first material love is paper stationery. It manifested during my childhood in the Philippines where I was first exposed to paper stationery shops. It’s a passion that has only evolved in the past two decades, even in the face of technology advancement. I exclusively use 0.38mm and 0.5mm gel and ballpoint pens because it keeps my handwriting the cleanest. I’ve been using the same Uni Jetstream 4-in-1 0.38mm ballpoint multipen and pencil my entire PhD because it writes so smoothly. I recently bought my first fountain pen and I’m completely hooked. There’s particular notebooks I purchase because the paper is smooth and sturdy with just the right level of brightness and no ink bleed through. I discovered dot grid paper a couple years ago when I tried out bullet journaling (bujo). I’ve since stopped maintaining a bujo, but dot grid paper is my standard preference for personal and research notekeeping. Paper stationery products are hit or miss and I’m grateful for Kinokuniya Bookstore in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles for being my first resource into exploring quality products.

A snapshot of my MagAO-X Fresnel model paper planning notes. Using dot grid is the best combination of maximizing blank space with the evenly spaced dots providing just enough guidance to write in straight lines. My eyes can focus on the writing instead of the grids and ruled lines.

While paper stationery usage is one thing, letter writing is a different game. Writing and sending cards occasionally was nothing new for me, but it became a regular thing when I moved to Tucson for graduate school. I was transitioning into a distance relationship and I missed a lot of my friends and family. I sent cards as a form of encouragement for myself and a lot of my friends who started their grad programs. Over time, card writing became my personal creative outlet.

I have maintained a few pen pal correspondences through the years. We’re never quite consistent; we regularly fall off the wagon from our correspondence streak as we each get busy and that’s perfectly fine. There’s no time constraints on these things and we help each other get back on track. We don’t write much, just little highlights of things we want to share with each other. I wrote to one of my pen pals about how excited I was about my monstera plant’s new unrolled leaf had not 1 but 2 holes in it. I’ve amassed so many cards from friends through my PhD that I’ve had to buy another decorative storage box to house them all.

My favorite part about letter writing is adding cute card flair. I love finding out about new stamps coming out and using them in my correspondences. My current favorite stamp is a lenticular printed T-rex. I get to learn cool stuff from stamps, such as Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu and her work in nuclear physics (my excitement for female Asian in STEM representation is off the charts). All my envelopes get sent with some sticker by the recipient address and sealed with washi tape.

My first time doing Christmas cards was in 2017, to which I mailed 43 cards. New Horizons got a commemorative stamp set when it visited Pluto in 2016, of course I was going to collect it and use them.

Letter writing has been my private getaway to detatch from a computer screen and hang out at local cafes. Just me, a drink with a snack, a small pile of cards, my favorite pen, and listening to music on my headset. It has brought me to appreciate taking in my environment. Of all the cafes I’ve visted in Tucson, Ren’s Coffeehouse in St. Philip’s Plaza is my favorite letter writing hangout (mostly because they also serve food).

During an internship in New Hampshire in Summer 2018, I frequented Terragia in Nashua, NH on weekends to write cards. Terragia had the perfect writing atmosphere – a small plant shop in a cafe. My second favorite local spot was The Bookery in Manchester, NH where it was a both a bookstore and a meal-serving cafe.
During my visit to Bhutan in August 2019, I would spend a couple minutes in the mornings to write postcards in my hotel room. I intentionally picked the room with an extra window to admire the breathtaking landscape from my desk; the photo doesn’t do a good job showing what I could see. Unfortunately, international mail is very finicky and it’s unclear to the status of these postcards.

In 2001, the USPS dedicated April as National Card and Letter Writing month with the goal “to raise awareness of the importance and historical significance of card and letter writing”. To challenge myself, I made a very lofty goal: write and send 100 postcards to people I know through the month of April. I chose postcards because if I’m going to mail 100 of something, I’m going to do it with the cheapest postage stamp. (Jared is only capable of paying me so much with the graduate student salary limits.)

I came into this project with a lot of pre-existing postcards. I’ve accumulated cards from all over the place: astronomy-themed cards from a past Art of Planetary Science show, Tucsoncentric cards, and some fun cards from Antigone Books. I completely burned through an AMNH illustration postcard set that has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. When I ran through my postcard supply, I bought a postcard set from an independent designer recommended by a friend. Postcards are fairly cheap to buy in a bundle set.

It’s an arduous task, but I manage it in stages through the week. I eagerly look forward to spending my Friday or Saturday evening binge writing through postcard bundles. To be honest, I believe it’s been the only reason why I’ve been able to not lose my mind with writing my papers. Writing these cards is an enjoyable process with the right setup. Here’s some progress photos through the month:

Writing postcards 1-40 with some blooming tea and matcha roll cake. Glass teapot from Seven Cups Fine Teas in Tucson. Blooming tea from Teabloom. Matcha roll cake from Sandyi.
I learned my lesson last time and bought a proper floor pillow online. Highly recommend, my back hurt far less.
Writing postcards 45-60 while basking in the sunset with some charcuterie and agua fresca (jugo de jamaica). Beehive cheeses are seahive and teahive flavors from Flora’s Market Run.
Writing postcards 74-95 while spending time with my new balcony companions. Pan dulce from La Estrella Bakery (the best panaderia in Tucson) and mug is full of Ibarra hot chocolate (Ibarra >> Abuelita any day).

I’m happy to say that as of two days ago, I met my goal and completed my 100th postcard. (If you want to be fully technical about it, I mailed them out today.) It was fun to pick card designs for the recipients and allocate dedicated time away from the computer. I’ll probably do something like this again, but not to the extent of 100 postcards within only 1 month. It’s been a rewarding experience all around. The best part is that I’m starting a regular pen pal correspondence with 2 more friends!

Letter writing is a bit of a dying activity in this technological age. Despite that, I believe it’s a worthy pursuit. While email, texting, and social media allows for easy and quick access, there’s something extra special about maintaining a snail mail correspondence. After all, isn’t it nice to receive a surprise letter in your mailbox? The sillier the card, the better.


Of course I’m going to choose a song by The Postal Service. Where were you in 2003? Because this song was EVERYWHERE.

The Postal Service – Such Great Heights