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Looking for an intensely-flavored, rich, heirloom tomato? Try the heritage favorite “Cherokee Purple” tomato!
The Cherokee Purple Tomato is an heirloom tomato known for its dusky red peel with dark purple tones. This old-time favorite is also prized for its excellent flavor, which consistently ranks the variety in among the top-tasting tomato varieties. Cherokee Purple fruits are big, meaty tomatoes that grow on long, rambling vines. Make room in your garden for this high-performer!
Read on to learn all about Cherokee Purple tomatoes.
The Cherokee Purple Tomato is a North American heirloom cultivar originally grown by the Cherokee people in the area of Eastern Tennessee. The variety was popularized by tomato enthusiast and expert Craig LeHoullier, who received the seeds from John D. Green. After growing the seeds, Craig called the unnamed tomato “Cherokee Purple” and sent the seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Cherokee Purple is now one of America’s favorite gourmet heirloom tomatoes and is often listed as one of the top-tasting tomato varieties.
“All we know of the actual history is that JD’s neighbor shared the seeds with him, and that they descended from a purple tomato given to the neighbor’s family by Cherokee Indians about a hundred years ago.”Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, by Craig LeHoullier
Cherokee Purple tomatoes are defined by their dusky red-purple peel and complex sweet-tart flavor. The fruits are large, oblate/flattened tomatoes that tend to grow in small clusters on long, rambling, indeterminate vines. Individual Cherokee Purple tomatoes tend to weigh between 1/2 to 1 pound each.
Cherokee Purple is one of many excellent purple tomato varieties. Other purple tomato varieties include Black Krim tomatoes, Carbon tomatoes, Price’s Purple tomatoes, and Purple Calabash tomato.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes have an intense, complex, old-fashioned tomato flavor. These tomatoes have a rich aroma, accompanied by the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. Cherokee Purple tomatoes are quite juicy, almost like a ripe peach. The tomato pulp has a pleasant firm-yet-fine texture.
“Cherokee Purple defines the ideal intersection of sweetness, tartness, depth, and texture. It is a tomato lover’s tomato, finding a home in salads, on sandwiches, or just sliced into thick slabs.”Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, by Craig LeHoullier
Cherokee Purple tomatoes are one of America’s most popular heirloom tomatoes due to their intense, old-fashioned tomato flavor. Like many heirloom tomatoes, the exact history is unknown, but these tomatoes are believed to have been handed down through generations from the Cherokee people in the area of Eastern Tennessee. This heritage variety was introduced to present-day gardeners by heirloom seed-saver and tomato expert Craig LeHoullier.
Growing Cherokee Purple tomatoes is very similar to growing other types of vining heirloom tomatoes.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes can be grown at home from seed or can be purchased as potted seedling plants from a plant nursery. If growing from seed, purchase your Cherokee Purple tomato seeds in the winter and plant them indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost in your area (usually this means sowing seeds indoors sometime in February-March).
The easiest option is to buy seedling Cherokee Purple tomato plants. Since these tomatoes are quite popular, some specialty plant nurseries and even larger big-box garden centers sell Cherokee Purple seedling plants in the spring (usually April-June).
Whether you’re growing from seed or from purchased seedlings, don’t put them outdoors until threat of frost has passed. Cherokee Purple tomato plants are easily damaged at temperatures below 43°F (6°C).
Once outdoors, plant your Cherokee Purple tomato plants in nutrient-rich soil that drains water easily. These are large plants which should be spaced about 2 feet apart. They grow particularly well in raised garden beds and in large containers like wine barrel gardens. Put the Cherokee Purple plants in a location where their leaves get direct sunlight for at least 6-8 hours per day. Also ensure they are close to a water source so they will be watered consistently (a drip irrigation system is excellent for watering tomato plants).
Cherokee Purple tomato plants are indeterminate, meaning their vines keep growing longer and longer throughout the season. These larger vines require a significant trellis or cage structure to support them. Skip the small standard hardware store tomato cages and opt for a heavy-duty tomato cage, a sturdy vertical plant stake, a large garden obelisk, or even a metal garden arch. Use twine or plant ties to secure the vines to the support structure as they grow.
Heirloom tomato plants like Cherokee Purple are heavy feeders, and can benefit from high-quality organic fertilizer. Start with some homemade compost (or store-bought organic compost if you don’t have homemade). For an extra nutrient boost, try an organic tomato fertilizer, like one of these options:
Cherokee Purple tomatoes are not hard to grow, but they are also not the easiest tomato variety to grow either. Small, hybrid tomatoes like the Sungold tomato are generally much easier to grow. That said, there are a few steps you can take to make growing Cherokee Purple (and other heirlooms) as simple as possible.
The first tip is to purchase a potted baby tomato plant instead of starting your Cherokee Purple tomatoes from seeds. Beginner gardeners (and many long-time tomato growers) often leave the seed-starting to the nurseries for tricky warm-season crops like tomatoes.
Secondly, get your tomato planting area ready prior to planting the seedlings. Plant them in a raised garden bed if possible, or perhaps a large whisky barrel garden. Use a nutrient-rich organic potting mix that allows water to drain out easily. Add a substantial trellis for the tomato plant’s vines. Cherokee Purple tomato plants also benefit from consistent water from a drip irrigation system.
Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato plants can get quite large, with vines extending 8′-10′ in good growing conditions. Most plants are staked vertically, with the main stem of the plant gently tied to the stake with twine. An outer tomato cage or trellis structure can help support horizontal vines that branch out off the side of the main vine.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes tend to ripen 70-80 days after the seedling plants are transplanted outdoors. Expect to care for the plants for 2-3 months before the first tomatoes are ready to enjoy. While Cherokee Purple tomatoes do take quite a while to ripen, they are often ready before some other meaty heirlooms like Mortgage Lifter tomatoes and Brandywine tomatoes.
Harvest Cherokee Purple tomatoes anytime after the pale blush of the mature peel color appears. Tomatoes harvested before they are ripe can either be enjoyed fresh as firmer, acidic fruits, or brought indoors to ripen at room temperature. Harvesting some tomatoes early protects the ripening fruits from threats like hail, birds, and deer, who may get into your ripening tomatoes if left on the vine.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes can also be left to ripen on the vine, where they will reach their absolute peak of sun-ripened goodness. Watch the color of the peel develop and gently feel the firmness of ripening fruits. Ripe tomatoes should be enjoyed as soon as possible after picking to avoid them becoming over-ripe. Over-ripe tomatoes often have a soft, mushy texture and a slight scent of rot. Don’t let your beautiful tomatoes go to far!