It is the most famous barley in the world, but the name Maris Otter is a puzzle to many. Is Maris a Latin prefix, a corruption of maritime (maritime climate), or what?

For those who remember The Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Trumpington, Cambridge, (now a Waitrose store) where Maris Otter was bred back in 1965, the entrance to the offices, laboratories and trial sites was off Maris Lane. Surely this lane gave rise to the prefix for so many enduring plant varieties – Maris Widgeon wheat is still grown by Organic farmers and those requiring thatching straw, and of course Maris Piper potatoes continue to be prominently displayed in every major supermarket across the land.

‘Otter’, ‘Widgeon’ and ‘Piper’ were all part of a long list of different wildlife species, also including ‘Badger’ (spring barley) and ‘Beaver’ (beans) and many more, with which the PBI had a sympathy, for whatever reason, all with the prefix ‘Maris’. But the Maris prefix was chosen for a another very appropriate reason – it was the name of a prominent local farming family, who farmed at Great Shelford (the other side of the Trumpington Road) from the early 17th to the mid 19th century. Maris Lane was named after them, the lane that led to the Maris family’s farm.

How do we know all this, because our 50th Anniversary celebrations have caught the attention of Mr Robin Maris, a retired farmer from Kettering, and a direct descendent of the Maris’s of Great Shelford. He has written to tell us all about it – it is another, albeit rather different, story within the story we are celebrating all year, and one I am bound to relate.

After all, the most famous barley in the world could now equally be described as “Robin’s Maris Otter” (mine) or “Robin Maris’s Otter” (his) – both of us, it might be said, have a legitimate custodial claim!

Robin Appel