Apples rarely come true from seed, and early growers often allowed unknown seedlings to grow in hopes of a new, flavorful eating apple. Many of these trees produced "spitters," apples so tangy the first bite was spit out, and suitable only for cider. However, some early farmers discovered apples so delicious that neighbors took cuttings, and orchards vied for the rights to plant and sell the new trees. Out of several hundred of these apple tree varieties, four are the most common.
Jesse Hiatt discovered an apple sapling growing along a fence line outside Peru, Iowa, in 1868. After unsuccessfully attempting to rid himself of the small tree, he allowed the tree to grow. Years later, Hiatt entered the fruit in a local competition and won first prize with the chance discovery, now named Red Delicious. The bright red color, rich flavor and generous size elevated this apple to the No. 1 commercial apple in the United States. Commercial growers on the West Coast planted Red Delicious apple tree cultivars in the 1920s, and they soon dominated the market. Washington state, which produces $2.2 billion of apples yearly, devotes 30 percent of that production to Red Delicious apples. Evron Everheart of Iowa State University bemoans the commercial Red Delicious, stating that modern orchards selected apple trees for bright fruit color and skin durability rather than overall quality. "None have retained the wonderful original flavor," Everheart states. Nevertheless, Red Delicious apples continue to be a common feature of produce aisles and teacher's desks.
The second most common apple is the Gala, at 20 percent of Washington state's production. Gala apples have an excellent fresh flavor and golden skin striped with russet red. Although they are smaller and less colorful than Red Delicious apples, Gala apples have a superior flavor and crisp, white flesh. Gala apple trees are a deliberate cross between Golden Delicious and Kidd's Orange Pippin. American growers imported Gala trees from New Zealand in the 1970s, and this apple's market share is steadily growing.
Golden Delicious apples comprise 10 percent of Washington state's apple production. Astoundingly, all these Golden Delicious apple orchards descend from a single tree. Anderson Mullins found the first Golden Delicious apple tree growing on a hillside in Clay County, West Virginia, in 1912. Stark Brothers' Nursery bought the rights to the tree and surrounded it with a fence, hiring Mullins' nephew to protect, nurture and keep notes on the tree. Mullins' nephew watched over the first Golden Delicious tree for the next 30 years. The bright green-yellow fruit and sweet flavor quickly popularized the Golden Delicious apple, and cuttings became the foundations for orchards worldwide.
Granny Smith apples originated in Australia. Anna Marie Smith allowed a chance seedling to grow from a refuse pile near her kitchen window. After the tree matured, locals tasted the fruit and named the tree after her. Although retailers predicted that consumers would steer clear of a green apple, Granny Smith apples quickly rose in popularity and comprised 13 percent of Washington state's 2009 output. Granny Smith apples are a bright green, with a sharp, crisp flavor ideal for baking.