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
Samuel Williams says
Hi! I’m a tomato farmer in Ghana and I want to enquire if I can get some of the Cherokee tomatoes seeds to grow and I also want to get more ideas on how to grow other vegetables as well.
Wendy M. says
Samuel, I am just beginning farming, of sorts, in the US. I was wondering if you have a blog or website where you share information. I am starting a blog, I would love to “meet” growers from around the world and share gardening stories and photos. Reply to this post if you would like to correspond, and I will post my blog once it’s up and running 🙂 Best wishes for a happy harvest! I have eight Cherokee Purple sprouts that I am currently babying, and this post has reassured me that they are doing fine, even though they are not as big as my Roma sprouts. Thanks for the reassurance!
Roma can be used to graft cherokee purple into to avoid any possible soil borne viruses.
Do you use the forum Tomatovill?
Some very experienced & knowlegable tomato growere.
Did you ever get your Cherokee Purple tomato seeds?
My Cherokee purple tomato plant which is only 3 feet tall. There are 8 large tomatoes which are turning red/purple. I’ve noticed over the past 10 days the plant has not grown. All yellow flowers turn brown and fell off. Why?
I wasn’t getting bees pollenating this year, so I became the bees. I gently “tickled” the flowers every few days and the pollen on my fingers was distributed and VIOLA! I started getting tomatoes. This worked on Tomatillos too. Squash was a wash this year.
Samuel, check baker creek heirlooms and they should be able to help you out. Best company I have ever dealt with and they have a great selection.
Hey everyone… I planted seeds of a Purple Cherokee tomatoes and still 12 kinds of tomatoes… If you want we can exchange seeds.. I am interested for chili peppers too.. I have 12-13 species. Also I plant many vegetables in my garden in continental Bosnia.
R. Yaorei says
Do you have the seeds of beefsteak, delicious, Brandywine and blackrim, early girl? Please respond.
I planted a Cherokee Purple in a large pot with Miracle Grow potting soil. The plant is about 2.5 ft tall. The first 5 fruit all have blossom rot. What should I do? It has a lot of blossoms still. Thanks. Ray
Ray, blossom end rot is due to lack of calcium in the soil. You can get calcium nitrate at just about anywhere (Walmart, Lowes, etc), and it will instruct you on the container how much needs to be used. Another good way to add calcium is to save up egg shells, wash them out real good, let them dry, then put them through a food grinder until they’re almost like powder or ground coffee. Sprinkle it around the plant and lightly work it into the soil.
I hope that helps save your tomato plants. 🙂
or use spoiled milk
More accurately, blossom end rot is caused by a deficiency of calcium within parts of the plant.
It could be lack of calcium in the soil, but that is unlikely.
More likely, your plant is having trouble moving calcium internally.
Do a search for Garden Myths Blossom End Rot (I’m in no way affiliated with the web site) for the complete discussion.
Any ideas on why my Cherokee purples get blooms but then they fall off??
you need to give them an ice tea spoon of epsons salt
What is the best delivery method for the Epsoms Salts on an established plant? Just sprinkle it on top of the soil or mix in? Or would it maybe be better to dissolve the salts into water first and pour on?
I ordered a Cherokee Purple plant and have had it in a large wash tube with miracle grow soil and it refuses to grow. Look healthy just doesn’t grow?
Linda Johnson says
I have several purple cherokee, plus brandywine etc, was wondering if these would work well for fried green tomatoes ?
R. Yaorei says
I think you can kindly send me the seeds of Brandywine, beefsteak etc which is of big variety. I am growing Chirookee Purple. It is well flourishing. Please kindly respond.
I have lots of trouble with Cherokee Purple. I’ve started several plants from seed over the last three years, and they always do poorly.
Meanwhile, my Steak Sandwich, Supersweet 100, and Brandy Boy plants thrive.
Same raised bed garden, same everything.
I had my soil tested this year, and while I have great levels of P, K, Mg, Ca, B, Zn, Mn, Fe, and Cu, my pH is over 8!
I’m guessing that perhaps Cherokee Purple is more sensitive to high pH, so I’m working to get the pH down to about 6.5, which is where tomatoes in general like it.
So far this year, all tomato plants are looking good, except for the Cherokee Purple, which once again has a serious case of leaf curl. Again, all the other tomato plants are looking nice!
Please let me know if you have had a similar experience to mine–and were able to figure it out.
Buzz, I have the same problem with you. I have a Purple Cherokee and some cherry tomato sharing a large planter. The Cherokee has had leaf curl over most of the plant periodically since early on. So far lots of flowers but no fruit yet. I’m in Bay Area California. Curious if anyone has had a similar experience and learned how to solve it.
RI Gardener says
I have planted Big Boy, Golden Girl, Mr. Strippey, Valencia, and Cherokee Purple. All are in the same planting bed with high compost organic matter. All the plants are 3 weeks in the grown and all doing great…. except for the Cherokee Purple. The CP is the smallest, it has set some flowers, but some of the leaves are curling. I water every morning, they all get 8 hrs of direct sun, I have not fertilized at all. I give all the plants the same care, nothing different for any of them. I’m just not that precise with my knowledge and care to treat each one uniquely. Last year, I lost the CP but all other tomatoes did great.
Any thoughts? I would love to save the CP!
Just a fellow backyard gardener in Rhode Island that needs a bit of advice.
So far my purple is doing great! It is still young and 2 ft tall but it looks healthy and is already producing fruit. My Stripped German on the other hand looks sickly.
My CP TOMATOES CRACK AND SPLIT. Usually when they crack they begin to leak. So no good. Any way to control cracks and splits
The splitting may be related to irregular watering. Or so I was told when I had a problem with this a several years ago. As I understood it, if they’d been a little dry then suddenly got lots of water while fruiting, there would be a growth spurt that caused the peel to split. Worth looking at, anyway 🙂
I am a container gardener in Jamaica and I will be planting some giant mix heirloom tomato in the near future. I would like some tips on growing them. Thanks
Scott Mcleod says
I live on the West coast and I would like to know where I can purchase a larger size Cherokee Heirloom plant than the 3-4 in potted options typically offered on line.
I was in Townsend TN and was given a Purple Cherokee Tomatoe from the RVer next to us who purchased at a local vegetable stand. When I ate it I thought it was one of the best tasting and unique tomatoes and saved a lot of the seeds on a paper towel. I started the seeds indoors under my grow light and planted them May 10th in my raised bed garden that is 5 x 16′ the 14 plants are 6 to 7 feet high and are loaded with large tomatoes. I uses a soaker hose and water every other day.