April 26, 2022
I had decided to plant my garden last week. I originally wanted to grow varieties of squash seeds in a seed starter tray and then replant them in the bed along the north side of the house. This bed has been nothing but weeds since we returned, and Melissa told me it was never too good at growing things even when her mom planted. I got the seed tray in February and listened when I was told it was too early to start. March rolled around and rather than planting I got busy with projects. April is almost over now, and it is time to plant the seeds outside rather than in the starter box. It turns out it was a good thing I decided to wait. Melissa bought six Cherokee Purple tomatoes from a friend and wanted to plant them in my potential Squash bed.
When I looked online, I found the Cherokee Purple (Solanum lycopersicum) is an old variety of tomato that develops fruit with a deep, dusky-rose color while maintaining a somewhat greenish hue near the stem even when ripe. The combination of deep crimson interior and clear skin give it a distinctive color. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (SESE) was the first seed company to offer Cherokee Purple. It was released in limited quantity in 1993 and has become a popular heirloom variety. The tomato originated in Tennessee, and plant lore says the Cherokee Purple may have been passed down from the Cherokee tribe. Heirloom plants means they have been around for several generations, and unlike hybrid varieties, heirlooms are open-pollinated so the seeds will produce tomatoes nearly identical to their parents.
In 1990 John Green of Sevierville, Tennessee mailed heirloom tomato expert Craig LeHoullier seeds of an unnamed purple tomato. Green said the seeds came from tomatoes he had gotten from a woman who received them from her neighbors. The neighbors said the varietal had been in their family for 100 years, and that the seeds were originally received from Cherokee Indians. LeHoullier named the tomato “Cherokee Purple” and sent seeds to the SESE. Jeff McCormack, the owner of SESE, said that the tomato “tasted fine, but was kind of ugly”, and thought people may not like it. SESE featured the Cherokee Purple in the 1993 seed catalog and LeHoullier sent the seeds to several market growers. One of them was Alex Hitt from North Carolina, who had immediate success growing and selling the tomato despite its appearance, which was described as “looking like a leg bruise.” In 2014, Cherokee Purple was named one of the top ten tomato heirloom varieties by the SESE.
THOUGHTS: Cherokee Purple are indeterminate, which means they will continue to grow and produce tomatoes until the first frost in autumn. Melissa is hoping they will produce better by placing them in the ground rather than a container, despite being in the north bed. Regardless, we need more cages as mine were used on the store-bought plants I planted in containers last week. Whatever the purple’s origin, they are claimed and grown by members of the Cherokee Nation. The tomato originated in the highlands of Peru and was transported to Mexico and by 500 BCE it had been domesticated. The tomato was later spread by the Spanish and is now grown on every continent except Antarctica. This includes the hundreds of heirlooms, hybrids, and varieties (from 42 Days to Zebra Cherry). This is one of the few invasive species that ended up being a good thing. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.