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Was “Granny Smith” a Real Person? The True Story Behind the Apple’s Namesake

granny smith apple on wooden platter
Fischer Food Design/Shutterstock

There’s nothing quite like a bright green Granny Smith apple; between its delightful color and slightly tart sweetness, the fruit is lauded as much for its appearance as it is for its taste. But have you ever wondered where the Granny Smith apple gets its name? Was there ever a real “Granny Smith,” or is the apple’s moniker just a catchy marketing phrase?

It turns out that Granny Smith was, in fact, a real person. Her full name was Maria Ann Smith, née Sherwood; what’s more, there’s a reason the Granny Smith apple bears her name: She’s responsible for cultivating the fruit in the first place. Here’s the real story behind the Granny Smith apple and the woman who discovered it.

Meet the Real Granny Smith

Maria Ann Sherwood was born in Sussex, England, sometime toward the end of 1799. (The precise date remains unknown, but we do know that she was baptized on January 5, 1800. At the time, it was the custom to baptize children around a week after their birth.) Her parents, Hannah and John Sherwood, were farmers; accordingly, Maria went into the family business. She also went on to marry a farmer—Thomas Smith—in August of 1819, thereby becoming Maria Ann Smith when she was around 19 years old.

The Smiths stayed in Sussex for a further two decades, their family growing all the while: Thomas and Maria had eight children, five of whom survived past infancy. In the 1830s, however, they opted to take part in a “bounty” emigration scheme enacted by the government of New South Wales, Australia. Many such schemes, which essentially amounted to government-assisted emigration to bring desired laborers to Australia, existed throughout the 19th century; in 1835, the emphasis lay particularly on “farm laborers” and “agriculture mechanics” —precisely what the Smith family was. Thomas and Maria left England with their family and arrived as free settlers in Sydney at the end of November in 1838 after a lengthy sea voyage. They put down roots in nearby Ryde; a few years later, in 1842, they had another child, as well.

The area of Ryde known at the time as Kissing Point was a well-known fruit-producing district, so that was where Thomas initially found work. By the mid-1850s, the Smiths had purchased about 24 acres of land to cultivate their own orchard. They became a fixture of the community, selling their fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, and Maria’s reportedly spectacular fruit pies at market in Sydney. In her old age, Maria, who was well-known for helping her community whenever needed, also gained a fondly-referenced nickname: Granny Smith.

The Origin of the Apple

19th century photo of Maria Ann Sherwood and her husband
Unknown author / Public domain

Here’s where the apple’s origin story becomes a combination of history and mythology. According to some accounts, Maria discarded the remains of some apples she had been cooking with one day in a compost pile near the creek behind the Smith family’s farmhouse. In others, however, she found the rotting remains of some apples at the bottom of some crates holding items she had purchased at market and tipped those out into the compost pile. In both cases, though, she later found a seedling growing out of the compost pile—and, after deciding to work the cultivar, she discovered that the bright green fruit it bore was tart and acidic, yet still sweet. It also kept well due to its firmness and thick skin, making it excellent both for cooking and for general eating.

The second version of the story is generally accepted as the more likely of the two to be true— mainly because it’s the one that’s the most well-documented. In 1924, orchardist and historian Herbert Rumsey interviewed several fruit-growers who had known Maria when she was alive and found that their stories about the origin of the apple generally lined up; he published a piece centered around the interviews in the New South Wales broadsheet The Farmer and Settler on June 25 of that year. One of Rumsey’s sources recalled having been invited to examine the seedling Maria had found with his father. While they were taking a look, he said in the interview, she had told them that she believed the seedling to have grown out of the remains of several rotting crab apples she had thrown out after finding them in some cases she had brought back from the market. This source also put a year to the apple’s discovery: 1868.

Unfortunately, Maria never saw the commercial success of the apple she had cultivated in her backyard; she died on March 9, 1870, at the age of 70—just two years after discovering the fruit that now bears her name. She was interred a few kilometers down the road from the Smith family farm, in the cemetery at St. Anne’s Church in Ryde, where she resides to this very day.

Growing Granny Smiths

Apple cultivars aren’t able to self-fertilize, so the fruit itself doesn’t grow true to type from a single seed. Instead, apples require both a maternal parent and a paternal parent to propagate. The maternal parent is the seed parent, while the paternal parent is the pollen parent. To grow true-to-type apples, two or more cultivars must be planted in an orchard; doing so allows insects to carry pollen between cultivars, thus ensuring proper propagation.

When cultivars grow, they’re usually a result of one of two methods. They’re either purposefully bred by humans, in which case the seedlings are called bred seedlings, or they happen purely by chance, in which case they’re called chance seedlings. Granny Smith apples are classified as chance seedlings—which, unfortunately, means that we don’t know what their parentage is. This is often the case with chance seedlings, particularly older ones; many of them were simply found in nature, meaning we have no way of knowing which cultivars contributed to their growth. Theories exist about the parentage of Granny Smith apples—for example, they may be a combination of the Mauls sylvestris and M. domestica, aka the European wild apple or French crab apple and a domestic apple such as the Rome Beauty—but alas, no one knows for sure.

Either way, though, following Maria’s death, local growers continued to cultivate the apple she had seemingly accidentally grown—and by the 1890s, it had become synonymous with her nickname. At the Castle Hill Agricultural and Horticultural Show in 1890, it was exhibited under the name “Granny’s Seedling”; then, 1891, it won the show’s prize for cooking apples as “Granny Smith’s Seedling.” As it continued to grow in popularity, the fruit became known as the Granny Smith apple—the name by which it is still referred today.

Granny Smith’s Legacy

The Granny Smith apple is now one of the most popular apples around; according to the BBC, 60,000 metric tonnes of the fruit are harvested in Australia every year, making it second only to the Pink Lady.

Maria Ann Smith’s legacy lives on in other ways, as well. The southern part of the land that once made up the Smith family’s orchard and farm, for example, is now the Granny Smith Memorial Park. What’s more, every year since 1985, the city of Ryde has held a Granny Smith Festival, which is now beloved as one of the Sydney area’s largest and most joyful of street festivals. Oh, and the big, green apple the Beatles used as the logo for their record label, Apple Records? It’s a Granny Smith.

So, the next time you bite into a crisp Granny Smith apple, spare a thought for the lady who had the foresight to care for and cultivate one of nature’s happiest of accidents. You wouldn’t be enjoying your treat without her!

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »