While it’s almost impossible to pick a favorite tomato variety, Cherokee Purple consistently ranks on the top of my list. With a gorgeous deep color and taste that’s rich, sweet, acidic, and a little bit smoky, it’s easy to love.
There may also be a bit of nostalgia when it comes to why I love this tomato so much. I still remember the moment I ate a perfectly ripe Cherokee Purple tomato and my definition of tomatoes changed forever.
I’ve also found that many other people hold these heirloom tomatoes close to their hearts. Each year, I hear people asking for Cherokee Purple at the farmers’ market and listen to the joy people experience from growing them in their gardens. Whether you’re a longtime Cherokee Purple lover or have never tasted this tomato before, keep reading to learn how to grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes.
Cherokee Purple Tomato – Quick Growing Guide
|Plant Type:||Annual vegetable||Tolerance:||Heat|
|USDA Hardiness Zone:||4–9||Maintenance:||Moderate to high|
|Season:||Summer and early fall||Soil Type:||Rich and well-aerated|
|Exposure:||Full sun||Soil pH:||6.2 to 6.8|
|Time to Maturity:||72–85 days after transplant||Soil Drainage:||Well-draining|
|Spacing:||24 inches||Companion Planting:||Lettuce, basil, beets, sweet alyssum, marigold|
|Planting Depth:||1/4 inch deep||Don’t Plant Near:||Potatoes, peas, pole beans, corn|
|Common Pests and Diseases:||Aphids, thrips, late blight, early blight, septoria leaf spot, anthracnose||Cultivar:||Cherokee Purple|
Cherokee Purple History
As its name suggests, this heirloom tomato can be traced back to the Cherokee people of the Southeast United States. It’s thought that the Cherokee developed and then cultivated these tomatoes for years before sharing them with other people in the area.
Over time, one of these tomatoes made its way to the hands of John Green who lived in Sevierville, TN. Green says that he received the tomato from his neighbor, who said the Cherokee gave the seeds to her family over 100 years ago.
After Green tasted how delicious this deep purple tomato was, he saved some seeds and sent them to famed tomato breeder Craig LeHoullier in 1990.
LeHouiller had seen and tasted his fair share of tomatoes, yet when he grew out the seeds, he was undeniably impressed by the fruits. He sent some of the seeds to friends at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange with the note that he had stumbled upon something remarkable.
Upon hearing LeHouiller’s praises of the Cherokee Purple, the company grew out and sold Cherokee Purple seeds. LeHouiller also sent the seeds to other companies, and before long they were widely available.
Cherokee Purple Basics
The Cherokee Purple is an heirloom variety with a storied history.
As an heirloom, it is open-pollinated and breeds true to seed. That means that when you save seeds from a self-pollinated Cherokee Purple tomato, they will develop into plants that are identical to the parent plant.
Cherokee Purple plants have an indeterminate growth habit, which means they grow and produce fruits until something kills them. Therefore, you can expect tall plants and a continuous supply of fruit throughout the summer and early fall.
Since these plants are heirlooms, they don’t have the disease resistance present in many modern hybrid tomatoes. However, the plants do have natural resistance to some of the diseases often present in the hot and humid southeast.
The fruits have a reputation for being both ugly and delicious. They weigh around 10–16 ounces, have a deep color that’s likened to bruised skin, and grow into shapes that are often best described as irregular.
As for taste, the tomatoes are rich, acidic, sweet, and complex.
How to Grow Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
Growing Cherokee Purple tomatoes is similar to growing other types of heirloom tomatoes. Follow these instructions and tips to increase your odds of healthy plants and a bountiful harvest.
Growing Cherokee Purple Tomatoes from Seed
While you can purchase Cherokee Purple seedlings to plant in your garden, starting plants from seed can provide greater satisfaction and control. And since you need to start seeds weeks before planting them outdoors, it allows you to scratch the itch you have to begin gardening!
If you’d like to grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes from seed, you’ll want to start with healthy seeds.
Since Cherokee Purple plants are heirlooms, you can save seeds throughout the years. However, you’ll want to start out with healthy seeds you can trust.
If you’re buying your seeds from a company, you should look for a high germination rate and reputable growing practices. Responsible seed companies will select seeds from healthy plants and then properly harvest and store these seeds.
Some reputable seed companies you can purchase Cherokee Purple seeds from include Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and High Mowing Organic Seeds.
Determining When to Start Seeds
Since tomato plants cannot handle cold temperatures, you should not plant your tomatoes outdoors until the last spring first has passed. You can use the predicted last frost date to determine when it will be safe to plant outdoors.
Tomato seedlings typically take about 50–60 days to grow into a seedling that is the right size to transplant outdoors. Therefore, you should start Cherokee Purple seeds indoors about two months before your predicted last frost date.
In my area, the last frost arrives around April 19. That means I will start my Cherokee Purple seeds around February 19.
Planting Seeds Indoors
Once you’ve figured out the right date to start your seeds, it’s time to plant!
Choose a well-draining and rich potting mix that will support your tomato plants. Two options I like are Vermont Compost Fort Vee and Coast of Maine Sprout Island Blend.
You’ll also want to obtain well-draining seedling containers that you can start individual seeds in. I like to plant the seeds in 72-cell trays and then pot them up into 4-inch pots.
If you’re trying to save some money, you can also use small plastic containers like yogurt cups. Just make sure the containers are clean and poke some drainage holes in the bottom.
No matter what type of container you use, you should plant the seeds ¼ of an inch deep. Water the soil mix well and place the seeds somewhere between 65–85ºF.
As long as the seeds stay warm and moist, they should germinate within 5–8 days.
Once the seeds sprout, you’ll need to supply them with lots of bright light. I find that grow lights are the most reliable way to ensure the seedlings have the light they need to grow.
I use T5 shop lights hung from adjustable utility shelves. However, other grow lights may work better on a smaller scale.
No matter what type of light you select, place it only a few inches above the tops of the plants.
Transplanting Seedlings Outdoors
When nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50ºF and the danger of frost has passed, you can plant your seedlings outdoors. However, don’t just take your plants from their cozy indoor home and plop them in the ground!
Instead, you should harden off your plants. This will allow them to acclimate to their new environment which will limit stress.
Hardening off involves slowly increasing the time the plants spend outdoors. Start by placing the seedlings outdoors for a few hours each day then slowly increase the amount of time they spend outside.
After one week, the plants should spend an entire day and night outside. Then they’re ready to plant!
Choose a well-draining location with full sun. If you are planting multiple tomatoes, space the plants two feet apart.
Dig a hole that is at least six inches deep and six inches wide, then add a handful of compost to the bottom of the hole. If the soil is compacted, loosen it with a digging fork before planting.
Place the seedling in the hole and cover it with soil. It’s okay if a bit of the plant’s stem is covered—roots will develop on the underground portions of the stem.
Caring for Cherokee Purple Plants
Once your plants are in the ground, it’s up to you to help them thrive!
Like most tomato plants, Cherokee Purple plants require a few inches of water a week to thrive. The exact frequency and amount you’ll need to water will depend on the size of the plant, temperature, humidity, rainfall, and other factors.
In general, you can expect to water your plants about once every two to three days. It’s better to spread waterings out over multiple days rather than applying lots of water at once. This method will help keep soil moisture relatively consistent, which helps prevent the fruits from cracking.
If you only have a plant or two, water the base of the plant with a watering can. However, if you are growing lots of plants, you may want to invest in a soaker hose or drip irrigation system.
Tomato plants are heavy feeders which means they need lots of nutrients to thrive. Providing your Cherokee Purple plants with the proper nutrients should begin before you even put the plants in the ground.
Conducting a soil test will give you a good overview of the soil pH, soil organic matter, and nutrients present in the soil. You can submit a soil sample to your local agricultural extension office or a private soil testing laboratory.
Once you receive the test results, amend your soil as recommended. It’s best to apply these nutrients in the fall before you plant your tomatoes.
After the tomatoes are in the ground, you should fertilize them on a regular basis. Since too much nitrogen can limit the development of flowers and fruit, you should choose a product that contains more potassium and phosphorus than nitrogen.
Two products that can work well include Espoma Organic Tomato-Tone and Jobe’s Organics Vegetable and Tomato Food. Apply these products about every two to three weeks throughout the growing season.
Cherokee Purple plants are indeterminate, which means they will not stop growing once they reach a certain height. That said, these plants typically don’t grow too tall.
I’ve found they often max out around six feet tall. This means that they will benefit from trellising, but you generally don’t need to worry about them getting too out of control.
If you’re growing only one or two plants, a tomato cage is often the easiest way to support and contain the plants. Place the cages around the plants when they are still small.
Since Cherokee Tomato plants are susceptible to many different fungal diseases, I like to prune these plants. Pruning helps increase airflow which can limit the development and spread of disease.
When you prune, it’s essential to use sharp and sanitized tools. This will speed healing and limit the spread of disease from one plant to the next.
Even if you don’t complete in-depth pruning, I recommend removing the lower leaves. This limits soil splashing from the ground and onto the plant’s foliage.
I also like to prune off excess leaves as the plant grows. This will help increase airflow.
An optional pruning step is to remove the plant’s suckers—the shoots that emerge between the plant’s stem and leaves. While this will limit the overall potential fruit production, it can make the plant more manageable.
Managing Pests and Diseases
Cherokee Purple tomatoes are susceptible to a wide variety of common tomato diseases and pests. Becoming familiar with these threats can help you manage and treat them.
Some of the most common diseases of Cherokee Tomato plants include Late Blight, Early Blight, Anthracnose, Fusarium Wilt, and Verticillium Wilt. Since these fungal pathogens are hard to treat once they arrive, it’s best to prevent them using strategies like crop rotation and proper plant nutrition.
Pests to keep an eye out for include aphids, thrips, tomato hornworms, armyworms, and slugs.
Harvesting and Storing Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
Cherokee Purple tomatoes begin light green and turn red or purple as they ripen. A fully ripe Cherokee Purple will be deep reddish-purple and soft to the touch.
You can expect to see your first ripe tomato about 70–85 days after you transplant the seedling outdoors. Fruits towards the bottom of the plant will ripen first, so keep an eye out near the ground.
As far as when to harvest your Cherokee Purple tomatoes, there isn’t one right answer. Some people swear that you should allow the tomatoes to fully ripen on the vine, but research shows that the flavor doesn’t differ between tomatoes that ripen on and off the vine.
With this in mind, you can pick your tomatoes any time after they develop their first color. If you pick them unripe, you should allow them to ripen in an area between 50–60ºF.
If they are stored in the proper environment, pink tomatoes will last for one to two weeks and fully ripe tomatoes will last two to four days.
What Do Cherokee Purple Tomatoes Taste Like?
The Cherokee Purple has a rich, complex, and balanced flavor. It is both sweet and acidic, which makes it a popular choice for many people.
It also has nuanced flavors that some describe as smoky, musky, or earthy. The notes are so complex that enjoying a Cherokee Purple tomato can be likened to sipping a fine wine!
How to Enjoy Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
The rich and complex flavor of Cherokee Purple tomatoes makes them versatile additions to the kitchen.
Their size makes them perfect for slicing onto sandwiches—you won’t find a better addition to a BLT. And they’re delicious enough to enjoy on their own! Just cut fat slices, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve as part of a quintessential summer meal.
Cherokee Purple tomatoes also work well in tomato dishes including tomato pie, bruschetta, and salsa. However, since they are on the juicier side, they’re not the best option for tomato pastes or sauces.
Tips for Growing Cherokee Tomatoes
Now that you know the basics of growing Cherokee Purple Tomatoes, keep these tips in mind.
Aim for Consistent Soil Moisture
Cherokee Purple tomatoes have a reputation for developing cracks and splits. While some of these are unavoidable, keeping the soil moisture consistent can help limit them.
Consistent soil moisture will also help the plants obtain nutrients like calcium. This will help prevent the development of blossom end rot.
Harvest at Least Twice a Week
Overripe tomatoes are no fun to deal with. Not only does it mean wasted food, but it may also mean handling moldy or rotting fruits.
To avoid this situation, harvest your Cherokee Purple tomatoes at least twice a week.
Provide a Boost of Beneficial Microbes
While the soil may seem inert, healthy soil is full of life! Microbes like bacteria, fungi, and nematodes can help make nutrients available to plants, fight off pathogens, and keep pests at bay.
Adding a small amount of finished compost to the soil can help add beneficial microbes. You can also inoculate the soil with a blend of microbes.