Named after the rainbow goddess of Greek mythology, irises are available in an impressive spectrum of nearly every hue, even earth tones, allowing for creative combinations in the garden. The wide-ranging genus of the iris family, Iridaceae, with 310 accepted species, truly adds sumptuous colour to any garden no matter what the size.

There are both bulbous and rhizome types that flower from mid-winter to mid-summer, with ones for a variety of locations from pond margins to sunny borders. Select ones for the right spot and they are easy to grow and long-lived. In ideal conditions irises perennialize, continuing to bloom season after season. And these rainbow flowers have been popular for so long, the Fleur-de-Lis symbol, referring to the yellow waterside flag iris, has long been associated with both French and English royalty, as they have been gracing gardens for centuries.

Great British Life: There are many in shades of blue and mauveThere are many in shades of blue and mauve (Image: Leigh Clapp)Great British Life: Pretty in pink, lupins and irisesPretty in pink, lupins and irises (Image: Leigh Clapp)

The most commonly grown have been classified into groups, which include Reticulata, that flower late winter, the late spring Hollandica or Dutch Irises, flag Pseudacorus and Siberian marginal varieties and the archetypal Bearded Irises, germanica, that take centre stage in early summer with their handsome if fleeting blooms. The three upright petals and three downward falls stand proudly on their strong stems, lending a stately presence to the border. Bearded irises are further divided into categories according to height: miniature dwarf, standard dwarf, intermediate, miniature tall, border and tall. The smallest are about 20cm, and the tallest reach around 120cm. Over the centuries breeders have taken the ancient, subtle colours and created a confection of possibilities.

Great British Life: Blocks of irises make a statement lining a pathBlocks of irises make a statement lining a path (Image: Leigh Clapp)Great British Life: The bright yellow Iris 'Jeanne Price'The bright yellow Iris 'Jeanne Price' (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Planted en masse in colour blocks irises make a spectacular vision. The classic contrast of blues and yellows may work in your garden or you can use themes of soft pinks to apricots, or bolder rusty metal tones for a strong statement. There are so many possibilities – let your creativity flow.

As long as they aren’t too crowded bearded irises also work beautifully in a mixed palette among plants such as alliums, lavender and foxgloves. Many hybrids are registered each year, with breeders in Britain and America working on new beautiful blooms. Trends include developing repeat-flowering varieties, meeting demands for particular colours and the elusive dream of a true red iris.

Martyn Price is part of the family run Chailey Iris Nursery, which specialises in bearded irises, as well as Siberica, Ensata, Louisiana and Species iris, and has an extensive selection grown here in Sussex and sold by mail-order throughout the UK, with some of the best re-blooming and scented irises you will find. ‘Customers order throughout the year and then bare root rhizomes are dispatched in late July and August,’ he says. ‘We grow more than 600 varieties of bearded irises, from dwarf less than 20cm to tall, over 1m, many are fragrant and will bloom twice a year, spring and autumn. The peak blooming time in Sussex is from May to late June, then again in late August through to the first frosts.’

But beware, as Martyn explains: ‘You are more likely to kill an iris with kindness, never over water, or over feed. If you do you’ll get lots of leaves and few flowers’.

Great British Life: Irises meld beautifully in summer bordersIrises meld beautifully in summer borders (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Martyn’s top tips

• Give iris as much sun as you can

• Plant the rhizome above the soil

• Facing south is best

• Wet ground will rot off the rhizomes, they can easily cope with snow and cold, but not wet ground

• Divide iris rhizomes every fourth year. One rhizome planted will give 3 or 4 new plants. Dig up the clump, split off the new rhizomes and discard the old ones as it’s the new ones that will flower

• If the leaves go brown or show signs of rust, spray with a proprietary black spot rose spray such as Roseclear. It doesn’t affect the flowering

To know

• Chailey Iris Nursery,

Mail-order nursery

Readers discount – 15% off on 2024 orders, min spend £15 excl, VAT

Discount code: SussexLife24

See them also at the Spring Plant Fair, Arundel Castle

Sunday 21 April,

• The British Iris Society,

Great British Life: Blue irises and alliums in a border at Great DixterBlue irises and alliums in a border at Great Dixter (Image: Leigh Clapp)Gardens to visit

Great Dixter House and Garden, Northiam, TN31 6PH 
Open through the season

Highdown Gardens, Worthing, BN12 6FB
Open daily

Great British Life: Irises surround a small fountain at Offham HouseIrises surround a small fountain at Offham House (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Offham House, Offham, BN7 3QE
Sun 2 June (1-5),

Hollymount, High Hurstwood, TN22 4AE
Suns 26 May 23 June (12-5),

Wakehurst, Ardingly, RH17 6TN

Standen House and Garden, East Grinstead RH19 4NE

Nymans Garden, Handcross, RH17 6EB

Great British Life: Luminous and stately, irises add a painterly qualityLuminous and stately, irises add a painterly quality (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Get the look – bearded irises

• need an open position

• full sun for at least six hours a day

• free-draining soil

• prefer alkaline conditions

• plant in September

• dig hole with mound in the centre

• place rhizome on top of the mound

• spread roots over the sides

• backfill with soil

• do not let other plants shade the rhizome

• water regularly until established

• in spring remove old foliage and weed

• feed in spring and after flowering

• remove spent flowers

• deadheading fading flowers allows others on stem to open

• after flowering remove flower stems

• don’t cut back the leaves in summer

• divide late summer