The Cherokee Purple Tomato

Adam Calder Wheatsfield Produce Manager

Seed Savers Exchange recently posted a fascinating blog article about ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes written by Sara Friedl-Putnam. In it, she interviews the man who is responsible for bringing this famed variety to the market and delves into the history of this particular tomato.

This cultivar has only been commercially available since 1993, and yet its popularity has spread out all across the world.  Many seed catalogs and greenhouses carry ‘Cherokee Purple’ seeds and plants, perhaps not knowing about the unique nature and history of this particular variety.

“The tomato variety I planted in my very first garden was the hybrid ‘Better Boy’”, LeHoullier said.  “They were red and tasty, but ultimately, ordinary and boring.  A few years later, I read about Seed Savers Exchange, and my gardens were forever changed once I joined the organization.”

Due to a combination of its current market approval and his role in sharing the seed with the world, LeHoullier’s particularly enjoys the ‘Cherokee Purple’.

“My favorite is the ‘Cherokee Purple’” LeHoullier said, “due to its current staggering popularity, the amazing quality of the tomatoes, and the part I got to play in its introduction.”

LeHoullier goes on to elaborate the delicate path the tomato took from where it was to where it is now.

“The ‘Cherokee Purple’ story also perfectly illustrates the fragility of heirlooms,” LeHoullier said.  “If the Cherokees of eastern Tennessee didn’t share the seeds with the grandad of Jean Greenlee…if the grandad didn’t pass them on to Jean…if Jean didn’t share them with John Green…if John didn’t send them to me…if I didn’t name them and send them off to Jeff McCormack of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange…if Jeff didn’t list the variety in the 1993 catalog – if even one of those things had not happened, we probably wouldn’t have ‘Cherokee Purple’ today.”

LeHoullier also had some interesting tomato facts to share.

“A large scale study of acidity (pH) of tomatoes of hundreds of types carried out decades ago blew the myth of the low-acid tomato out of the water” LeHoullier said. “All tomatoes have acidity levels within a very narrow range.  When we call a tomato “low acid,” what we should be saying is “high sugar”- the sugar levels in such tomatoes are elevated so that the acidity is covered up.”

LeHoullier’s closing thoughts were on five tips for growing a great tomato crop:

  1. High-quality seed-starting mix.
  2. Location – as much sun as your property allows.
  3. Visit your plants – learn what they look like when they are happy, and when they are troubled.
  4. Understand your plants, and provide what they need. Watering and feeding vary.
  5. Fall in love – gardening is a journey to be cherished. Don’t get hung up on high yield expectations.

Photo of Adam Calder holding Cherokee Purple tomatoes