One of the most popular of the non-traditional heirloom varieties of tomato, the Cherokee Purple grows to both great height and gives fruit of large size. It’s very tasty with what’s usually described as a “tomato-ey” flavor and has a distinctive deep reddish-purple color. Cherokee Purples are some of the most eye-pleasing and distinctive of tomatoes in both appearance and taste.
Best Soil for Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
As with all tomatoes, 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. A relatively high nitrogen content in the beginning (left to bleed off by harvest to encourage fruiting) is recommended and Cherokee’s thrive in soil with a pH of 6 to 6.5.
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. Seedlings purchased from a greenhouse should be kept indoors for a week or so and hardened. When small, Cherokees 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 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 shoots to encourage rooting and strong stem growth. Be sure they’re watered regularly and that a side dressing of light fertilizer or compost is added every 30-45 days. Use an evenly balanced fertilizer if your soil began with a high nitrogen content (as recommended).
Of course, 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 harvest, but as with many heirlooms, 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 tomatoes when they are large, and have a strong purple hue amongst their deep red background. Their shoulders usually remain green, but may get lighter in color when ripe.
Saving Cherokee Purple Tomato Seeds
Seeds from Cherokees are easily dried and stored. Many 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.
Keeping the tomatoes off the ground prevents most types of blight. Pests like birds and grasshoppers are not generally as drawn to Cherokee Purples due to their odd coloring, but leaf-eaters like caterpillars can ravage the plant.
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. 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
Amongst the heirloom varieties available today, the Cherokee Purple is generally one of the easiest to grow. They require tender loving care in the beginning stages, but once well-established, they will require only regular watering and the occasional fertilization.
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