The first granny smith was grown by the real Granny Smith, an amateur horticulturalist and early migrant to convict era Sydney.
Maria Ann Sherwood was born 5 January 1800, in Peasmarsh, Sussex.
Her family were poor; the area was rural and largely agricultural, Maria’s father worked as a farm labourer. Like her siblings, Maria did not attend school, but instead went into service work as soon as she was able.
In 1819 she married Thomas Smith, another farm worker. The pair settled in nearby Beckley and had eight children, five surviving.
In 1838, the Smiths immigrated to Australia.
At this time, the British government was attempting to expand their Australian colonies. Originally set up as a prison camp to ease the strain on British gaols, the settlements in Australia had proved to be economically viable, and strategically important.
Ignoring the local Indigenous inhabitants, the government began offering incentives to British civilians to relocate; from 1828, free passage was provided for any willing immigrants.
In 1835, the government introduced a new scheme, known as ‘Bounty Immigration’.
Under this plan, established settlers in Australia could offer employment to people in England. They would pay the immigrant’s travel costs and guarantee them a job; the government would reimburse the money, once the new migrant was successfully settled.
Life in Australia was tough, but also provided an opportunity. It offered a fresh start, appealing to the impoverished and ambitious.
The Smiths signed up for the Bounty Immigration program. They left England early in 1838 on the Lady Nugent, and arrived in Sydney on November 27.
Thomas Smith had been hired by a farmer in an area northwest of Sydney called ‘Kissing Point’ (present day Ryde), that produced most of the colony’s fruit and vegetables. The Smith’s settled there, and Thomas began working in the local orchards.
They had a ninth child, in 1842.
Their new life was rugged, but the hoped for opportunities were also forthcoming. By the early 1850’s, Thomas was able to purchase his own land: 24 acres adjacent to Kissing Point, in an area known as the ‘Field of Mars’ (the unusual name came from the first European settlers, who had a military background).
Utilising his recent experience, Thomas Smith planted fruit trees on his property. He would mostly grow apples, which thrived in the local climate.
The wild predecessor to the modern apple is the Malus sieversii, native to Kazakhstan. It is not known when they first appeared, but humans have been eating them since at least 6 000 BCE.
The first apples were a kind of crab apple: small, dark, and sour.
China was the first country to cultivate apples, which began around 4 000 BCE. They were carried from there via the Silk Road to Europe, where they gradually grew in popularity.
By the start of the Common Era, they were already one of the world’s most widely consumed fruits.
Like people, apples exhibit a genetic trait known as heterozygosity.
Each location on a genome is known as an ‘allele’; heterozygous individuals have two different genes at each location, one dominant, and one recessive. The genes are supplied by the individual’s parents, one set from the each.
Heterozygosity allows for an enormous number of genetic combinations, resulting in many different variations within a population.
This makes apple seeds unpredictable. Their genetic makeup is created at random, and usually shows traits that are quite different to the apples that produced them.
Apples from trees grown from seeds are known as ‘pippins’. Each time a pippin apple is grown, you are essentially creating a new type; the reason apples come in such a wide variety.
As humans began cultivating apples, it became desirable to replicate certain types. Different varieties of apples were required for different purposes, baking or cider making, and some were more popular due to their taste.
As growing apples from seeds lead to unpredictable results, not known till years later when the trees began to fruit, ‘grafting’ was developed as an alternative.
Grafting involves taking a cutting from an existing apple tree, then splicing it on to the stump of another. The graft will attach itself to the stump and root system, and eventually grow into a tree genetically identical to the one it came from.
The resulting apples will also be the same. This is how the apple common apple varieties you are familiar with are produced.
To further control the process, most commercially produced apples are from varieties that are self-pollinating.
But anyone can still take an apple seed, plant it, and create a new type of apple. Enthusiasts all over the world do this every year, experimenting to create new flavours and textures.
Most of these apples are not successful, and are soon lost to history.
Sometime in the early 1860s, Maria Smith bought a case of Tasmanian crab apples from the local market. As she used them up, she discarded the cores on her property, near a freshwater creek.
A few years later, some seeds from these apples began to grow into trees. Around 1868, they began to bear fruit.
Maria had produced a new type of apple.
The new variety was large, and light green. The taste was tart, although mild, and the texture firm and bread-like. Maria thought them perfect for baking, and began to use them in her kitchen.
She shared the apples, and her baked goods, with her friends and neighbours. Impressed with the results, some of these then took cuttings, so they could grow their own grafted versions.
By that time in her late sixties, Maria was known by many in the area as ‘Granny Smith’. The new apples were referred to as, ‘Granny Smith’s Seedlings’.
Maria Smith died in 1870. At the time, her apple was still unknown outside of the local area.
Nearly 20 years later, in 1889, two local farmers exhibited examples they had grown at the Castle Hill Agricultural and Horticultural Show.
‘The best exhibits were the dessert apples shown by Messrs. W. H. Allen and D. G. High. Both showed Granny Smith Seedlings.
Mr. Allen’s display was one worthy of the district and did him very great credit. The fruit was of grand size, remarkably clean and healthy looking.’
– The Cumberland Argus, 1889
Two years later, at the same show, Granny Smiths won top prize for Best Cooking Apple.
The success at the shows increased the apple’s popularity; in 1892, a number of local farmers included them in their displays.
As well as being large and pleasant tasting, the apples were resilient: they kept longer than average, and were hardy, not bruising easily when transported. Likewise, they could be baked without burning easily, or losing their texture.
These traits brought them to the attention of Albert H. Benson, of the NSW Department of Agriculture.
Benson initiated a study of Granny Smiths, cultivating them in large numbers for the first time at a government farm near Bathurst. Pleased with the results, he promoted the apple for commercial purposes, and export.
The durability of Granny Smith’s meant they could be shipped all over Australia. After World War I, improvements in food transportation and refrigeration allowed for them to be exported overseas.
They quickly found new markets in England and America.
Granny Smiths remain one of the world’s most consumed apple varieties, especially popular for use in baking.
They are grown in all six Australian states, and about 56 000 tonnes are produced here each year, making it Australia’s number one apple.
Granny Smiths have also found a place in popular culture.
The fruit was taken as the logo for the Beatles private company, Apple Corps Ltd, when it launched in 1966, and in 2013 was one of four apples commemorated by the US Postal Service in a special series of stamps (along with Northern Spy, Baldwin, and Golden Delicious).
The Sydney suburb of Eastwood, near where the Smith’s had their farm, holds a Granny Smith festival each year.