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.

| Fall 2012

What’s your favorite tomato? Which cultivar 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.’ This exotic wonder is rich in flavor, smoky and complex, the way a tomato should taste. It's 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, ‘Cherokee Purple’ 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 ‘Cherokee Purple?’ 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 the cultivar. 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 the cultivar, 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, Tennessee. 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 Native Americans sometime around the turn of the 20th century.

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