Notable Irisarians: A Profile of E. O. Essig

By Roy L. Oliphant


The E. in E.O. Essig should surely stand for excellence for he has excelled in two fields. He has won many honors, at home and abroad, for his work in entomology. The iris world, too, has recognized his ability and his awards have included the Dykes medal (for Sierra Blue) and the American Iris Society’s Hybridizer’s Medal.

Edward Oliver Essig was born in Arcadia, Illinois, on September 29,1884. He was brought to Guemeville, California, when he was about four, after the death of his mother. He lived in Calistoga and in Humboldt County until he entered Pomona College. He received his Bachelor of Science degree there in 1909 and accepted a position as Horticultural Commissioner of Ventura County. In 1911 young Essig became Secretary of the State Horticultural Commission. He found time to acquire a Master of Science degree in 1912; continuing his work with the State Horticultural Department until he left it to become Assistant Professor of Entomology at the University of California in 1914. He advanced successively to Associate Professor and Professor at the University until, in 1954, he become Professor Emeritus.

easter morn
Easter Morn

Distinguished Positions
Professor Essig has held numerous responsible and distinguished positions in entomological societies and with the Government, is the author of several books and a contributor to many scientific joumals. He has received the Award of Merit from the Republic of France for his work in Entomology and Hybridizing. Professor Essig is an authority on aphids and has the finest collection of aphids in the world, (a recent receipt of two spiny aphids from Madagascar has the Professor more excited that if he had won another Dykes – for these are the first of this type of aphid known to science).

Professor Essig still maintains an office at the University and at present is busy cataloging his collection and editing some of his writings. He has long been interested in the use of insects as food, both past and present, and Frances Gaulter, who visited his office with Alice Gordon in search of biographical material, insists that the Professor offered then chocolate covered ants and canned grasshoppers for lunch. I am sorry to report that the two ladies were not equal to the occasion and declined the offer.

Memorable Times
it was my good fortune to be a Director of the Garden Club of Alameda County when Professor Essig was president of that organization. Directors’ meetings at his Hillsdale Street place were always memorable ones, both for his remarkable garden and for the lovely painting, by Obata, of Sierra Blue, which hung in his home. Professor Essig was widely interested in horticulture and his garden reflected this interest. I recall his telling me once that, from preliminary work he had done with them, he was convinced that it would not be difficult to develop strains of plants normally requiring winter chill, such as the herbaceous peony, that would grow well in California. He did not have the time to continue this work. The field is still wide open for some aspiring hybridizer.

Berkeley was a center of iris culture and it is not surprising that Professor Essig, with the aid of Professor Sydney Mitchell, became interested in iris in the early twenties. True to his scientific bent, it was hybridizing that interested him and his achievements along that line were and are remarkable. He became Region 14’s first Regional Vice President after Southern California was split off and formed into Region 15. The AIS awarded him its hybridizer’s medal in 1944. He keeps his awards and medals, by the way, in a cigar box.

Essig Award Winners

Introductions of Professor Essig which have won awards are:

sierra blue

Uncle Remus HM ’27
Easter Morn AM ’31
Pale Moonlight HM ’33
Ukiah HM ’35
Shining Waters AM ’35
Sierra Blue Dykes ’35
Tenaya HM ’36
Song of Gold HM ’39
Mt. Washington AM ’40
Souson HM ’45
Easter Gold HM ’46

Those two fine whites, Easter Morn and Mt. Washington and the two lovely blues, Sierra Blue and Shining Waters, will long be remembered.

Professor Essig is still hybridizing iris at his new home at 744 Creston Road, Berkeley, and has a red program well started. He has a fine winter blooming, canary yellow iris from his new lines. Truly, once you have started hybridizing iris, you can never let it go.

[Reprinted from Spring 1958 Region 14 Bulletin]