Curious Questions: Who is Maris Piper?

The Maris Piper has become Britain's best-loved potato (hush, King Edward fans) — but where did it get its curious name? Eleanor Doughty investigates, while Toby Keel takes a look at where King Edward potatoes got their name.

Her name is as familiar as any philosopher’s. She has been invoked time after time in supermarket aisles, cookery books and in a text from my mum: ‘Maris Pipers, 220˚F, bit of salt.’

Yet who is she? Who exactly is — or was — Maris Piper?

The answer, it turns out, is less exciting than I had initially imagined. There I was, hoping for some kind of potato celebrity — a wholesome country hostess, perhaps, wearing a pinny, her sleeves rolled up, flour on her nose — but no. Maris Piper is not real. She was never a person—at least, the potato wasn’t named after anyone. (There may, I accept, have been someone in British history called Maris Piper, somewhere.)

The truth is that, in 1956, workers at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge were crossing potato breeds, when they were successful with what we now know as the Maris Piper, an oblong, smooth-skinned potato that launched a decade later. The name was derived from two elements: the first from Maris Lane in Trumpington, the location of the institute, and the second, Piper, chosen by the breeder H. W. Howard’s son.

Still, I like to think that Maris Piper, the woman, accompanies me as I peel my potatoes.

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Maris Piper’s identity revealed, what about the other iconic potato, the King Edward? Was it handed to the humble spud by a monarch in person, as with sirloin beef? And if so, did it come from old Longhshanks himself, or a subsequent king?

The answer — according to Redcliffe Salaman’s seminal work  The History and Social Influence of the Potato— is rather more prosaic, and distinctly less royal.

The potato was bred by a Northumberland gardener, who called it Fellside Hero, was picked up by a grower in Yorkshire, and eventually came to the attention — via a Manchester potato merchant — of Mr J Butler of Scotter, who saw potential and planted 50 acres of the spud. A potato merchant named Paxten suggested the royal name, and the rest is history — a history that made Butler rich as the potato became the most popular in the country.

Not only did the potato’s original creator never see a penny, his name isn’t even recorded in history, as Salaman records: ‘Bred by an amateur, chance dictated its birth, a native flair its survival, and the juggling of names its successful debut,’ he laments, yet another example of marketing trumping product.

Additional reporting by Toby Keel