The next time you take a bite from the pointy tip of a slice of apple pie, consider what makes it taste so irresistible. The key to America’s most iconic dessert lies in the unique tartness of Granny Smith apples. But how did such a popular, crisp, bright green apple get such a homely name?
Fans of the chartreuse green fall fruit might be surprised that there really was a Granny Smith for which the apple was named. But she didn’t live in Pennsylvania, New York or anywhere else in the United States that is seemingly synonymous with harvesting apples. Granny Smith and her namesake apple both called a small town outside of Sydney, Australia home.
As the story goes, Maria Ann Sherwood was born in 1799 in Sussex, England. At age 19, she married Thomas Smith and together had numerous children.
During the colonial period of England, the government was offering incentives to any citizens willing to relocate and work its new lands. In 1830, a £25 offer to move to Australian proved to be too tempting for Maria Smith, now age 30, and her husband, and they soon moved to the Land Down Under. Like other local families at the time, the Smiths became orchardists who grew apricots and apples among other fruits.
One day, Maria “Granny” Smith purchased some French crabapples at the market to use in some of her baking. The leftover fruit remains got tossed into the large compost heap on the family’s property down by the creek.
While descendants of Thomas and Maria have often disputed the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Granny Smith apple, the earliest and most authoritative account of the apple’s origin appeared in Farmer and Settler, June 1924 in an article by historian Hubert Rumsey.
Rumsey interviewed two local fruit-growers who recalled Maria inviting them over to see the new seedling sprouting from the compost pile. It was unlike any apple any of them had seen before, they recalled.
Granny came to enjoy the tart, green apples so much, she decided to cultivate the seedlings on her own. Unfortunately, she died just two years later at age 70.
Thankfully, local growers had planted Granny’s seedlings on their properties as well. One of them was Edward Gallard, who grew a large orchard of them every year until his death in 1914. The apples became widely popular throughout Australia and New Zealand. In 1891, “Smith’s seedlings” won the prize for “Best Cooking Apple” at the Castle Hill Agricultural and Horticultural Show.
Before long, Granny Smith apples were being produced on a large scale. Their late picking season and long shelf life made them perfectly suitable for shipping and were soon approved for export by the Department of Agriculture. The apples were first introduced to Great Britain in 1935, but they didn’t arrive in the United States until the late 1960s.
It is now believed that the Granny Smith apple is a cross between the Malus sylvestris, or European Wild Apple, and the M. domestica, or domestic apple. Granny Smiths continue to be one of the best apples for use in pies and cobblers and the symbol of fall baking.
Granny Smith passed away in 1870, so she never got to see the commercial success of her apples, but she will always be remembered for the delicious green apples she helped bring into the world.