Anyone who’s savored a slice of apple pie can appreciate the tart sweetness of a Granny Smith apple. And in between bites one might even wonder, where did that homely name come from, anyway?
It turns out there really was a Granny Smith. But she didn’t live in New York or Washington or any other American apple-growing state. Far from it. She and the light green varietal she created by accident hail from a small farm outside Sydney, Australia.
Born in 1799 in Sussex, England, Maria Ann Sherwood married Thomas Smith when she was 19, and together they raised five children on a farm in the village of Beckley. In 1838, the Smiths, along with several other area families, decamped for Australia, where the government was offering £25 a year to anyone willing to work the newly settled land. These were the early colonial days Down Under, when much of the country was still unexplored by Europeans. The couple put down roots in Kissing Point, known today as Ryde, and in the mid-1850s, they bought 24 acres of their own land.
The area around Kissing Point was perfect for fruit cultivation, and the Smiths, like other local families at the time, were orchardists who grew apricots, pears, apples and other tree fruits. Maria helped her husband around the farm, and also baked pies for sale at the Sydney market, where she would often pick out different varieties to incorporate into her recipes. By all accounts, her pies were top-notch. After cutting up the apples at home, she’d throw the leftover scraps into a compost heap down by a creek that cut through their property.
According to a report by local historian Hubert Rumsey in a 1924 issue of Farmer and Settler, in 1868 Maria asked a neighbor and his 12-year-old son to come over and look at some new seedlings that had sprouted down by the creek. Smith told the neighbor and his son, who would become the source for Rumsey’s article more than 50 years later, that she believed the sweet green apples derived from French crabapples grown in Tasmania (researchers have since classified them as a cross between a hybrid wild European apple and a domestic apple).
Smith cultivated the seedlings, but died two years later at the age of 70. Thankfully, local growers had also planted her seedlings on their property. One of them, Edward Gallard, grew a large crop every year until his death in 1914. In 1891, the growers exhibited “Smith’s seedling,” as they called it, at the Castle Hill Agricultural and Horticultural Show, where it won first prize in the cooking apple category. For years after that, growers exhibited the apples under the name “Granny Smith’s.”
By 1895, the Australian government was growing Granny Smith apples in bulk, and that same year listed them for sale on the export market. With its long shelf life and tart flavor, the Granny Smith apple took off after World War I, and by 1935 had reached markets in England. It took a few decades longer to reach America, in 1972, by way of the Auvil Fruit Company.
Today, Granny Smiths are among the most popular apple varieties in the U.S., available everywhere from farmers markets to big-box stores. And even though Maria Ann Smith wasn’t directly responsible for her apple’s worldwide expansion, her original tree still plays a crucial role in the cultivation process. Indeed, because the mutation that took place down by Smith’s creek was unique, cuttings derived from the original tree are required to grow every Granny Smith apple.