One of the most popular of the non-traditional heirloom variety of tomatoes, the Cherokee Purple grows to both great height and gives fruit of large size, appealing to gardener tomato connoisseurs. It’s very tasty with what’s usually described as a “tomato-ey” flavor and has a distinctive deep reddish-purple color and rich flavor. Cherokee Purples are some of the most eye-pleasing and distinctive of tomatoes in both appearance and taste.
This heirloom variety was reintroduced to the public by a gentleman named John Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, who got some of the seeds from a woman who received them from her neighbors and sent them to Craig LeHoullier, who grew heirloom tomatoes as a hobby and collected the seeds for the organization Seedsavers. In the handwritten note, Green said his neighbors had claimed that the varietal had been in their family for 100 years, and that the seeds were originally received from Cherokee Indians. And so it seemed perfect to name them. NPR has written a great story about it.
Best Soil for Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
As with all tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), rich soil is a must. The soil should be airy, heavy with nutrients, and should be loose down to six or more inches to account for the deep roots that this tall plant will set. For best results soil should have a relatively high nitrogen content in the beginning (left to bleed off by harvest to encourage fruiting). The cherokee purple plant will thrive in a soil pH of 6 to 6.5 and do fine in all the typical zones where tomatoes can grow.
Proper Care of Cherokee Purple Tomato Plants
Start seeds at least 8 weeks before the last frost date. Cherokee Purples are relatively slow in gestation and will grow slowly (even in good potting soil) for the first three or four weeks after sprouting. The best way to start seedlings purchased from a greenhouse is to keep them indoors for a week or so for hardening. When small, Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes are very susceptible to climate issues (too much sun, cold, etc) and should be protected.
Plant them in the ground and be sure they receive direct sunlight and full sun. The soil should be rich and slightly acidic (see above) and plants will need at least three feet (36 inches) of space – 48 inches is recommended, however. They will grow to be close to 9 feet in height and have a good spread of branches.
Pinch off early side shoots (known as suckers) from the main stem to encourage rooting and strong stem growth. Be sure cherokee tomatoes are watered regularly and that a side dressing of light fertilizer, compost or organic matter is added every 30-45 days. Use an evenly balanced fertilizer if your soil began with a high nitrogen content (as recommended).
Of course, tomato cages or hoops are required for these huge plants with their heavy fruits. Stakes can be used, but will not likely keep the large tomatoes on the vine once they near ripeness, so cages are preferred. Many have had good luck with tepee-style frames.
When to Harvest Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
For most growers, it will take at least 80 days to reach maturity and be ready to harvest, but as with many heirloom varieties of tomatoes, your Cherokee Purples are not likely to all ripen at once, but will often self-stagger the harvest over a week or two. Pick the ripe fruit when they are large, and have a strong, deep purple hue amongst their red background. Their shoulders usually remain green, but the green shoulders may get lighter in color when ripe.
Saving Cherokee Purple Tomato Seeds
Seeds from Cherokees are easily dried and stored. Many tomato enthusiasts hollow out the tomatoes for the seeds and use the shells to bake as stuffed tomatoes. Clean and separate the seeds carefully, then dry slowly over time. Most well-dried heirloom seeds like the Cherokee Purple will keep for 2-3 years in a cool, dry place.
Cherokee Purple Tomato: Pests and Diseases
Cherokee Purples are generally resistant to Fusarium Wilt and Septoria, the most common of tomato diseases. If they are kept healthy, these heirlooms will resist nearly every disease and most pests as well. Their primary enemy in the United States is the mosaic virus, which cannot be cured once it sets in. If you suspect any of your plants have contracted this (it is usually carried by insects and marked by its curling of the leaves in a wilt-like fashion), you should remove the plants from your garden quickly and destroy them. Blossom end rot is another common disease to avoid.
Keeping the tomatoes off the ground prevents most types of blight. Common pests like birds and grasshoppers are not generally as drawn to Cherokee Purples due to their odd coloring, but leaf-eaters like the tomato hornworm and other caterpillars can ravage the plant. Aphids should be treated against quickly if they appear.
How to Prepare Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
Cherokee Purple tomatoes can be eaten in any of a thousand ways. For every gardener growing them, there are ten recipes for eating them. They are great raw, dried, canned, or sauteed, and in salads or on sandwiches or pizza because of their sweet flavor. Most people do not pickle or render them to paste as this eye-pleasing variety is best enjoyed through sight as well as taste.
Tips for Growing Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
This heirloom tomato variety can be eaten in any of a thousand ways. For every gardener growing these delicious tomatoes there are ten recipes for eating them. They are great raw, dried, canned, or sauteed. Most people do not pickle or render them to paste as this eye-pleasing variety is best enjoyed through sight as well as taste.
Want to learn more about growing Cherokee Purple Tomatoes?
Check out these helpful resources:
Cherokee Purple: The Story Behind One Of Our Favorite Tomatoes from NPR
The Purple Tomato FAQ from Oregon State University
University of Missouri – Growing Home Garden Tomatoes
University of Illinois – Tomatoes