I was fortunate enough to come across the book Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier soon after my crazy tomato obsession started. I just loved it! I read, and reread it, and decided that I just had to meet the person behind it. And it turned out, the person behind it was also the guy who named one of the most well-known heirloom tomatoes: ‘Cherokee Purple.’
As well as naming the ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato, Craig LeHoullier co-leads the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, has introduced more than 100 tomato varieties and has inspired many gardeners. He lives in North Carolina, where he has grown over 1,200 varieties and is well-known for growing tomatoes in straw bales on his driveway.
Unnamed Seeds in the Mail
In 1990, Craig received a package in the mail from John D. Green of Tennessee, which included a letter and a packet of seeds. The letter explained that John’s neighbour’s family had been given the unnamed tomato variety about 100 years earlier by a member of the Cherokee Nation. When Craig grew the seeds, he was amazed by the purple colour of the ripe tomatoes — because tomatoes described as “purple” were usually pink. Craig named the tomato ‘Cherokee Purple.’ It has exploded in popularity since.
One year one of his ‘Cherokee Purple’ plants produced tomatoes that ripened to more of a brick-red colour rather than a purple but had all the other qualities of ‘Cherokee Purple’ (it could have been caused by a mutation or cross-pollination). He called it ‘Cherokee Chocolate.’ ‘Cherokee Green’ came from ‘Cherokee Purple’ too.
In the Kitchen
All three tomatoes — ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Cherokee Chocolate’ and ‘Cherokee Green’ — have the same incredible flavour—the perfect mix of sweet and tart. They’re just so good! I love them in sandwiches, salads, or eaten like an apple.
Grow your Own
All of these varieties have mid-season maturity, and the plants are indeterminate. If you don’t have a ton of growing space, I recommend training your plants by trellising, caging, or staking. If you just let your plants roam free, add a layer of mulch on top of the soil to prevent the fruit from rotting.
Where to Get Them
The Cherokee tomato family is widely available. Check your favourite seed company, and ask your gardening friends if they have any because you don’t want to miss out on this one.
Also, don’t miss out on Craig’s book, Epic Tomatoes. It tells you everything you need to know, from planting all the way to saving seeds and even breeding your own varieties. Find out more about Craig, and his books, and check out his blog at craiglehoullier.com.
Emma Biggs is a gardener and garden communicator who has raised over 130 tomato varieties. Her Toronto garden is the source of many of her stories and the produce that she sells in her neighbourhood. She hosts kids gardening videos and her latest book, Gardening with Emma, helps kids and adults find the fun in growing.