Plant of the Week: Lycopersicon; Cherokee Purple Tomato
I consider myself a man of good will and try hard not to offend. But in these days of roiling discontent amongst so many who have suffered unjustly for centuries, it is sometimes hard to know where the tripwire between civil discourse and offense lies. Cherokee Purple tomato is my favorite tomato and I seek it out at our local farmers’ market each June when the first fruit appear. To me, a white native Oklahoman, the name seems inoffensive, but then I’m not a Cherokee.
Cherokee Purple tomato is an indeterminate vine that produces “Beefsteak”-size fruit in the early part of the season. The fruit, described by one grower as the color of a “deep leg bruise,” are often ill-shaped with three to five large lobes around the circumference. Cat-facing of the fruit, a condition often cause by incomplete fertilization, is common in early season fruit with the surface often deeply pitted and sometimes discolored. The stem end shoulders of the fruit often remain green, even when the tomato is fully ripe. After the first flush of really large, often ugly fruit, the plants settle down and produce more globular tomatoes.
But, cut into a Cherokee Purple tomato and you will find a deep (blackish) red, extremely juicy tomato with small seeds. Then, one bite will convince you that this is real tomato flavor; sweet, rich and flavorful. Added to a sandwich, a slice of Cherokee Purple completely changes the experience. Don’t expect to find Cherokee Purple in retail grocery chains. This is a soft, juicy tomato that doesn’t ship well.
Cherokee Purple tomato is an heirloom variety. Heirloom vegetable varieties have been popular since the inception of the Seed Savers Exchange in 1975 that came of age during the back to the land movement of that decade. Preserving the germplasm of old land race varieties during an era of big ag and increased industrialization seemed like a good idea and has remained popular with a lot of gardeners and small market growers.
The story of Cherokee Purple tomato is typical of many heirloom seed varieties. Tomatoes, being mostly self-pollinated, can exist in a home garden for generations pretty much unchanged. All the gardener has to do is save seed each year to keep the line going.
The story of this old land race variety probably began in the Tennessee River Valley in the 19th century. In the spring of 1990 Craig LeHoullier, a North Carolina tomato enthusiast and author, received a packet of seed from John Green of Sevierville, Tennessee, who said he had received the seed from a neighbor. The neighbor in turn received seed from her neighbor who said the line had been grown in her family for over a century. Family lore said it had originally been handed down from a Cherokee family who grew it in their garden.
LeHoullier grew it for a couple years, was duly impressed and provided seed to two of the seed exchanges, using the name “Cherokee Purple,” honoring both the creation story of the seed line and describing the color of the fruit. Seeds became available to other gardeners on the seed exchanges in 1993.
Tomatoes, unlike corn and tobacco which migrated from Mexico and Central America in pre-Columbian days, do not seem to have been grown by Native Americans until the 19th century when the vegetable began appearing in home gardens across the nation. Stories handed down through families may or may not be true, but it was part of the lore of this particular tomato seed line. LeHoullier’s appropriation of the name “Cherokee” seems inoffensive to me, but — again — I’m not a Cherokee. With Columbus statues now coming down, the reservation boundaries now rightfully recognized in Oklahoma, and the names of sports teams being changed, don’t take offense if this new, made up name for a really good tomato causes offense. After all, it’s just a name.
Cherokee Purple tomato is a relatively disease resistant line that stands up to the heat and humidity of the middle south. Transplants are often available from retail nurseries or seeds are readily available on line. Like all tomatoes it should be grown in a good garden soil in full sun. It is too large to try to confine for container growing.
For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns, visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.uada.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.