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?