Cold Spring Aloes, a bucket list destination in Santa Barbara

Cold Spring Aloes, Tom Cole’s nursery and garden in Montecito, California was the first stop on my recent trip to Santa Barbara. It had been on my bucket list for years, and this January the stars must have been aligned just right because it finally happened.

Tom Cole is an agroecology and drought management advisor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), helping communities in sub-Saharan Africa, especially refugees and other displaced persons, grow more food. Tom has spent more than 30 years living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Mozambique, Uganda and Ethiopia. On assignment, he spends his spare time exploring areas botanists have largely ignored because of conflicts. The relationships he forms with local communities through his work allow him to travel to areas outsiders are typically not able to access.

Tom is the co-owner of Cold Spring Aloes, located on the grounds of a 12-acre compound Tom’s family has owned since the early 1970s. It’s also home to Tom’s personal aloe collection, comprising about 250 species, predominantly from East Africa, all grown from habitat seed. He considers himself a purist, but he does grow a few naturally occurring hybrids.

Through controlled pollination, Tom produces seeds which he shares with the Huntington, the Institute for Aloe Studies, and growers in Southern California in order to get these species out into gardens. He also sells plants to collectors as well as landscape designers and architects. Most of his business is through word of mouth. With Tom traveling 5+ months a year, Cold Spring Aloes is open by appointment only.

Tom has formally described three new aloe species (Aloe butiabana and Aloe wanalensis in 2011 and Aloe lukeana in 2015), one aloe subspecies (Aloe labworana subsp. longifolia in 2017), and three new sansevieria species (Sansevieria conduplicata in 2019, Sansevieria  lalakana in 2022, and Sansevieria yumbiensis in 2022), all from Uganda. In 2018, another new sansevieria species from Uganda was named in his honor (Sansevieria coleana).

Aloe lukeana flowering in our garden last November. Tom named this species after his brother Luke who died in Uganda in a tragic car accident in 2009.

In 2017, Tom and his long-time collaborator Tom Forrest published Aloes of Uganda, a comprehensive field guide covering all 24 aloe species and subspecies found in Uganda. Of these, 6 are endemic to Uganda, 13 are shared with Kenya and 5 with Tanzania. I’ve owned the book for years and highly recommend it to any aloe enthusiast. You can order it from Tom or buy it from the usual online sources.

As if his humanitarian aid work, operating a nursery, and caring for a world-class collection wasn’t enough, Tom also runs an award-winning garden design business. His designs are informed by nature, mimicking how plants grow in habitat surrounded by other plants and rocks. And beyond all that, Tom is also a 5-time world Frisbee champion!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend an aloe-centered event at Cold Spring Aloes, so in addition to exploring his remarkable plants, I also got to hang out with like-minded nerds. I reconnected with people I already knew and even met a few folks I’d known for years through social media.

Hamming it up for Instagram: Josh Allen (@fairviewplants), Nick Deinhart (@nickjoe209), and Kevin Kreucher (@crazy4cactus)

Cold Spring Aloes is full of amazing plants, but one stood out above the rest: Aloe volkensii subsp. multicaulis, seen in the photo above and the two photos below. This remarkable aloe is widely distributed in East Africa and can grow to a height of 12 ft. or more. The species is mostly solitary while subspecies multicaulis offsets from the base. Typically, the flowers are a solid orange-red, but Tom’s plant has amazing bi-color flowers – red with yellow tips.

When I visited, Tom told me that his plant had already been in flower for almost a month and that the display was likely to continue for at least another month. That’s a long time for aloe flowers – and another reason why A. volkensii would make a fantastic landscape plant. Unfortunately, availability is still limited; I’m hoping this will change as more growers discover this spectacular aloe. Fortunately for me, I was able to buy a 5-gallon plant from Tom.

Another aloe that attracted a lot of attention was the Aloe ferox in the photo sequence below. A. ferox typically has orange-red flowers, but yellow and white forms also exist. This A. ferox is not quite yellow and not quite white; somebody suggested we should call it green.

I spent a fair amount of time exploring the garden and the nursery, at times by myself, at times in the company of other attendees. The light conditions were challenging for photography, but the images below should give you a good sense of what there is to see.

Aloe powysiorum

Neat spider web!

Aloe chabaudii

Aloidendron barberae

Aloe marlothii and Aloidendron barberae towering over the visitors

The nursery is an adventure land for aloe nerds. There are far more plants than you might think, and looking at them all takes time. All plants are grown impeccably. Many aren’t labeled, which prompted lively guessing games. There’s a reason why the nursery is only open when Tom is around; only he knows what and where everything is.

Aloe schweinfurthii (this one was labeled)

Tom is actively propagating rare species like the Aloe otallensis below:

Quite a few of the less common aloes in Tom’s nursery have landscape potential, like Aloe wilsonii:

Arguably the most compelling Ugandan aloe for California gardens is Aloe lukeana. Tom had many specimens for sale, both smaller and larger, but they were already done flowering (A. lukeana blooms in the fall). Below is the smaller of the two A. lukeana in my garden; I think the flowers are among the most beautiful in the entire genus:

Aloe lukeana #2 in my garden. The photo on the left was taken on November 27, 2023, the one on the right today, two months later. As you can see, there are still a few flowers left!

To wrap things up, here are a few photos of the seedling house. Considering how mild the climate is in Montecito, there’s little need for a traditional enclosed greenhouse.

Visiting Cold Spring Aloes and attending Tom’s event were the highlight of my trip – a trip that was full of highlights. I hope I’ll have the opportunity to visit again next January.

To find out more about Tom, his history, and his plants, I highly recommend the resources listed below:


↣ About Cold Spring Aloes
↣  About Tom and Linda Cole's humanitarian work in Uganda

© Gerhard Bock, 2024. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. You're great at developing contacts in the succulent world. Tom Cole is impressive on all counts and I'm glad you had an opportunity to visit his nursery. I appreciate that you shared an Aloe lukeana with me in 2021 - it's a handsome specimen, has grown well, and flowered for the first time this past fall.

    1. So happy to hear your lukeana flowered. It produces the longest-lived flowers of any aloe in my garden.

  2. Wow! What an impressive collection of aloes and equally impressive human being! While I enjoy aloes when I see them (especially in bloom) I've never felt the pull that I do towards agaves. I wonder if that would be different if I lived somewhere I could grow them in the ground?

    1. Agaves will always be my #1 love, too. I think you'd embrace aloes if you could grow them more easily.

  3. Amazing collection of aloes as well as an amazing person. There is nothing more fun that congregating with others that are as enthusiastic as yourself. The sharing and learning from these experts must be amazing. In the upcoming book you are going to write it would great to have a section devoted to all the incredible growers and nurseries you visit. Just saying.

    1. LOL, maybe I will write a book someday. Actually, I'd been thinking of photographing the gardens of collectors....

  4. What a dream visit! Thank you for sharing a peek into Tom's garden/nursery. The Aloe volkensii is magnificent, oh all the aloes are wonderful. What a great day you had :)

  5. the "green" Aloe ferox -- yes please! Last I checked, my A. lukeana was gaining size, thank you again for making that happen. For a specialist, that's a rare balance the Coles have achieved, focusing not only on the plants but helping the local people as well. Really enjoyed this post!

    1. I'd love to have all the colors of ferox, but they get so big that I really can't have more than one.

      Glad to hear lukeana is doing well. Fingers crossed it'll flower soon.

  6. I greatly enjoyed this post and had no idea there were so many aloe species. I watched the YouTube video as well, just so I could see what Tom was like and to get a better sense of space. You are very lucky to have been able to visit.

  7. Wowowowowowwowow! That must have been a wonder-filled visit. My lukeana has grown well but I think it is in too dry a spot...

  8. Simply terrific!!!


Post a Comment