Heirloom Tomatoes: The Cherokee Purple

With a complex, smoky flavor, a spotty but fascinating history, and plenty of varieties and sister fruit, Cherokee Purple is a unique heirloom tomato well worth a taste.

By Andrew Weidman


Fall 2012

Cherokee purple

There have been several points of origin for dark tomatoes like the Cherokee Purple and its sister, the Indian Stripe. The most famous of those are the Crimean region of the former Soviet Union and in the Philippines.

Photo courtesy of www.RareSeeds.com

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What’s your favorite tomato? Which variety absolutely must be in your garden every year, come hail or high water? The one you recommend to everyone you meet, at the greenhouse, supermarket, or even the dentist's office?

Without a doubt, in my garden the honor goes to Cherokee Purple (CP). This exotic wonder is rich in flavor, smoky and complex, the way a tomato should taste, not bland or overly sweet like those mass-produced for general consumption. It grows and produces well in our humid Mid-Atlantic summers and, to be honest, CP also holds a soft spot in my heart because it played a big part in my first heirloom tomato experience, having tried it as a part of the “Genesee Valley” tomato collection in 1998, along with Brandywine and Mister Stripey.

So why CP? Its dusky and mysterious appearance catches your eye. Of course, as I mentioned above, it possesses spectacular flavor. I suppose I'm a bit of a crusader for CP. My wife would say if I need two plants I'll start two dozen, just so I can share the extra plants with the “Cherokee Purple-less”.

Pondering Cherokee Purple, my mind began to wonder and I soon became fascinated by the romance of back-stories hinted at by its unique name. Of course, a name like Cherokee Purple just had to have a great back-story, right? Well, it does, but not quite the one I imagined.

The Back Story

Upon commencement of my Internet snooping, I found Craig LeHoullier. Craig is an heirloom tomato “collector” and grower. He had been busy discovering heirloom tomatoes in a big way in 1990, growing up to 50 varieties a year. He had also recently joined Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) and the Garden Web online forum, and was trading tomato seeds through the “swap columns” of gardening magazines. Little did he realize he was forming a growing reputation for collecting and preserving heirloom tomatoes.

That year he received an unexpected package in the mail. When Craig opened it, he discovered a packet of tomato seeds and a note from John D. Green of Sevierville, Tenn. Mr. Green explained that the seeds were from a local favorite, a purple tomato with no name. He went on to say that a neighbor had shared it with him, and that her family claimed they had received it from Cherokee Indians sometime around the turn of the 20th Century.

Craig added this mystery tomato to his garden that year. The unknown tomato was full, rich, sweet, and absolutely delicious. He knew this could become a favorite if it only had a name. So, he turned to the limited information he had from Mr. Green plus his own observations to solve this problem, creating a provisional name for it to simplify his seed trades. “By pondering the apparent link to the Cherokee Indians via the history provided to me by Mr. Green and adding the color, I decided to name it ‘Cherokee Purple,’” Craig recalls.

One of the best things about collecting heirloom tomatoes is that you don't hoard your treasures, you share them. This is exactly what Craig did with CP, sending seed to Garden Web and SSE members like Carolyn Male and to seedsmen Rob Johnston of Johnny's Selected Seeds and Jeff McCormack of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Before long, CP had secured its place in heirloom tomato circles and gardens nationwide.

Cherokee Purple still had a few surprises in store for Craig. In 1995 he noticed one plant producing fruit that looked different. As he describes it, “it ripened to a rich, deep-chocolaty red, a color I'd never seen to that point, even after growing dozens and dozens of varieties.” Rather than destroying this strange sport, he saved seed from it for the next year as an experiment. “Suspecting it could have been a chance cross [I] thought I'd see all sorts of variation the following year. Instead, the new color remained stable, and Cherokee Chocolate was born.”

Two years later, lightning struck again. One of Craig's Chocolates refused to color up as it matured. Even though the fruit felt ripe, its flesh remained lime green, “...and it was delicious—fully the equal of Cherokee Purple and Cherokee Chocolate,” Craig recalls of Cherokee Green's “birth.”

Sister Act

Heirloom fans often pass seeds across the country through long-distance friendships and in late 2002 or early '03 Carolyn Male, an authority on heirloom tomatoes, received some seeds in the mail from a friend living in Texas. Donna Nelson had been visiting another friend, Clyde Burson, Sr., in Arkansas, when she noticed what looked like CP growing in his garden. He gave her some of the tomatoes, and she saved seed from them, sending some to Carolyn in New York.

According to Mr. Burson, this was a local favorite called either “Indian Stripe” or “Indian Zebra” (people in the area used either name for it). Carolyn planted “Indian Stripe” (IS) that summer and noticed that while it did indeed resemble CP there were some differences. She reports that, “...the fruits were lighter in color, a bit smaller and more to the truss (cluster) than with CP.” She also shared it with friends, sending seed to Craig, who agreed it looked a lot like CP. As Carolyn points it, “[The] taste was the same for both as well as flesh color.” She concludes, “[F]act is ... many people prefer IS over CP now."

Carolyn believes that IS and CP share too many similarities not to share a connection, although she's quick to caution that there's no way to be sure they're related. While the most obvious connection is their color and flavor, there are other tie-ins as well. CP carries an oral folk history with Cherokee connections. While IS's origins are forgotten, there must be a reason for the “Indian” part of both of its names. Both varieties come from regions inhabited by the Cherokee nation. These similarities suggest that CP and IS may be sister varieties, if not versions of the same variety. Only genetic testing can settle this question.

The Roots

Carolyn dug deeper into the historic references to try to find the origins of IS and CP, initially focusing on the Trail of Tears, the infamous forced Cherokee relocation of 1838 and 1839. She found, however, that there were many Cherokee tribes already living throughout the Southeast and Gulf States before 1800, including some in Tennessee and Arkansas. She also learned that there were actually several “trails,” crossing the country in a fan or net fashion, and some tribes slipped off from the trail to settle and start new lives at several points on the way to Oklahoma Territory.

The story tends to get a bit twisted now. Even if we knew when CP and IS were taken to Tennessee and Arkansas, we still don't know how they came to be in the possession of the Cherokee Nation. Even though tomatoes are a New World crop, they aren't indigenous to North America. Only the Southwest Native American nations grew them before the Europeans arrived. So, the Cherokee nation may have received their seeds from escaped slaves who joined their societies, English settlers, pioneers, or even earlier, from Spaniards exploring Florida and the lands around the Gulf of Mexico.

More interesting is the question of when CP and IS became, well, purple. As Carolyn explains, there have been several different points of origin for dark tomatoes. The most famous location would be the Crimean region of the former Soviet Union, while another historical reference to dark tomatoes can be found in the Philippines. The one important detail in all of these histories is that tomatoes have mutated into dark flesh forms several times in history, in several places around the world.

As if the story weren't complicated enough already, Carolyn informed me of a recent study (Barry et al, 2008), which attempted to map the genetic variables that cause dark flesh in tomatoes. The study concluded that that while dark flesh has been around for a long time, the genetic coding for dark flesh in CP specifically, is less than 100 years old! (The study didn't address IS.)

So what happened? Were the Cherokee growing a red tomato that darkened later? Did CP and IS mutate dark flesh independently? Which one darkened first? Did either one even come from the Cherokee Nation? Were the folk histories completely fabricated? We can guess, but we will probably never have the answers to these questions, though at least we still have the flavorful, fantastic tomatoes. Carolyn sums it up like this ... “No one can really ask the question of where and when that original dark flesh gene appeared, really. I mean they can ask, but there is no answer and never will be.”

And the Branches

Cherokee Purple has also attracted lots of attention with amateur and hobby plant breeders across the nation, with good reason. Bill Jeffers of the Mason Dixon Seed Project heads up one such grassroots-breeding program, the “Cherokee Tiger” grow-out. Bill chose CP and Tigerette as breeding stock because, in his words, “... Keith Mueller advised me ... to use two very diverse parents if I wanted to get the most robust and widely diverse results.” Bill couldn't imagine two tomatoes more different than CP — big, dark and rampantly growing, and Tigerette — a diminutive light-green dwarf of a plant bearing red, yellow or striped plum tomatoes no bigger than your thumb.

So why CP? As Bill puts it, “What's special for me about Cherokee Purple is awesome flavor, and history of contributing that flavor, along with robust growth habit and apparent heat tolerances, to the crosses made with Cherokee Purple.” Just as he had hoped, the results have been exciting.

Breeding programs require lots of grow-out space, so Bill has enlisted the help of several associates from across the country, all in search of what they hope will be the next Great American Tomato. Bill explains, “Every grower is planting as many individual examples of Cherokee Tiger segregates as space allows, observing the wildly diverse expressions, and selecting the best examples to carry forward toward stability.”

And that's not the only program out there. Keith Mueller has also made some exciting selections, crossing CP with Brandywine. These include Dora, Liz Bert, Gary O'Sena and Bear Creek, to name-drop just a few. But this is really just the tip of the iceberg; there are so many more CP offspring: Spudokee, Lemon Cherokee, Purple Haze, Cherokee Purple Potato Leaf, Cherokee Yellow — there isn’t space here to list all of CP's “children.”

The goal of many of these programs is to produce a new open-pollinated variety that may one day qualify for heirloom status. “But that is a few years off at this point,” cautions Bill. “We are also developing ways to offer ... hybrid seeds or cloned plants from particularly surprising and delightful re-combinations of characteristics.”

CP's past may be murky at best or even lost to history, but its future and the future of its extended family is clear — they will doubtless be with us for years to come. As Bill Jeffers says, “I think Cherokee Purple shares high repute with many other varieties among heirloom tomato growers due in part to the mythology built up around such varieties. It is impossible to absolutely verify the many histories attributed to such heritage varieties, but it is unarguable that most of them deserve the praise they get for wonderful flavor and interesting fruit colors and shapes.”

Craig LeHoullier considers himself fortunate to be a part of the Cherokee tomato story. “Cherokee Purple will always be a very special, perhaps the most special, tomato to me for the unlikely journey it is taking me on. Serendipity — that Mr. Green decided to send me the seeds, that I decided to give it the name and send it to a few seed companies, that they decided to carry it, and that people decided to love it enough to make it so widely popular — and when I see the tomato in a seed rack or a farm stand, I get to tell people that I named it! Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction ... and sometimes you just get lucky!”

There is not a doubt in my mind that you'll soon be championing Cherokee Purple too, just like me. You may even find yourself starting an extra two-dozen plants, just to spread them around!  I believe Carolyn Male says it best, “So why not grow both [CP and IS] and see which one you like best.” While we're at it, why not try growing Cherokee Chocolate and Cherokee Green too!


Andrew Weidman is a freelance garden writer in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is a Penn State Master Gardener and a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers.