How to Grow & Care for Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

An Heirloom Tomato with Superior Flavor

Cherokee Purple Tomato

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The Cherokee Purple tomato (Solanum lycopersicum 'Cherokee purple') is an heirloom, beefsteak variety known for its dusky rose color, green shoulders, and deep, rich flavor. An indeterminate type, the plant produces large round fruits from mid-summer to frost on vines that can grow to nine feet long.

Many heirloom tomatoes are susceptible to cracking, wilts, and a host of tomato diseases. The Cherokee Purple stands out for its resistance and a prolific production of fruit. Tomatoes have a slight smoky, sweet flavor and are a little less acidic than other varieties. Learn to grow this unique heirloom and find out how one plant can put large, delicious tomatoes on your table year after year.

If you live with curious pets, you'll want to restrict access to the tomato patch. While the fruits are harmless, leaves and stems are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses.

Cherokee Purple Tomato
Common Name Cherokee purple tomato
Botanical Name Solanum lycopersicum 'Cherokee purple'
Family Solanaceae
Plant Type Vine fruit, annual
Mature Size Vines to 9 ft. long, 2-3 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Well draining loam
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Mid-summer
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones Grown as an annual across zones
Native Area Andes Mountains, South America
Toxicity Leaves and stems toxic to pets

Cherokee Tomato Care

All tomato plants need extra attention, but the Cherokee Purple is fairly easy to grow and a great old-fashioned variety to choose when you are just starting out.

This plant is tolerant of mild drought with fruit resistant to cracking. Like most vining varieties, the Cherokee Purple requires a good staking system, however vines also can be controlled with early pruning.

The Cherokee Purple is open-pollinated, which means seeds saved from your plant will produce the same delicious tomato next year. This makes it a popular choice for seed-savers and tomato connoisseurs alike.

Light

All tomato plants need lots of bright, direct sunlight. Six to eight hours during the growing season is sufficient. A good cover of leafy growth is important for shielding the fruits from sunscald as they ripen.

Soil

Tomatoes are susceptible to several soil-borne diseases, so good soil starting out is essential for healthy plants. A slightly acidic, well-draining soil amended with compost is ideal. A balanced pH level of 6.5 to 7.5 is recommended.

Water

The Cherokee Purple will thrive with 1 to 2 inches of water weekly but can also hold up under short periods of drought. Installing a drip hoses is ideal for watering tomatoes. Always water at the soil line since overhead watering can lead to disease issues. Tomato plants do not do well if allowed to sit in water so avoid overwatering, too.

Temperature and Humidity

Best temperatures range between 65 and 85 degrees; however, extreme fluctuations can affect both fruit size and ripening time. Cherokee Purple tomato plants can withstand an occasional overnight temperature drop into the low 50s, but do not expect fruit to set until the thermometer stays steady at 65 degrees and above. At 85 degrees or higher, flowers drop and fruits fail to develop. A relative humidity of 65 to 85 percent is best. Extended periods of hot, moist conditions can lead to insect infestations and fungal disease.

Fertilizer

Fertilizing tomato plants can be a bit tricky and you will likely get a different answer from every expert and grower you ask. There are a few basic guidelines to follow regarding the best NPK ratios. The best answer will depend on the fertility of the soil starting out and this can be established with a laboratory soil test.

Tomato plants generally have low nutritional needs starting out that increase as fruit production begins. Use fertilizer with a low NPK ratio at the time of planting such as a 5-10-5. When flowering starts, add fertilizer with more phosphorous and potassium but keep the nitrogen level low as too much will result in lots of leafy growth as the expense of fruit production. One recommendation is to feed mid-season with an NPK ratio of 6-24-24.

Types of Cherokee Tomatoes

Since Cherokee Purple is an heirloom, there are no cultivars, however, if you're a fan of green tomatoes you might like to try Cherokee Green.

  • Solanum lycopersicum 'Cherokee Green': This cousin of the Cherokee Purple produces medium size, 8 ounce, green fruits with a yellowish-orange hue. The fruits are slightly more acidic than the purple variety but just as flavorful. Cherokee Green also is an heirloom and an indeterminate, vining type.

Pruning

The Cherokee Purple benefits from both early and late pruning. Early pruning is done by pinching out suckers—leafy new growth at the junction of two existing vines. This tomato can be trained into a slightly more compact form by removing suckers for the first several weeks after transplanting. The fruits will need shade from leaf cover as they ripen, so you'll want to avoid too much suckering since this can lead to scalding on the fruits.

Pruning late in the season is done with a heading back pruning cut on the vines. As cool weather sets in, this practice stops the plant from producing more flowers and fruit and directs energy to ripening fruits already on the vine.

It okay to remove non-productive vines and damaged stems and leaves throughout the season provided you leave enough shade for the fruits. Use clean tools and make sharp decisive cuts to avoid stripping and peeling the stems.

Tip

Avoid leaving tomato prunings in the garden. Remove and dispose of them. Due to their potential to carry a heavy disease load, vines generally do not make good compost material. They can spread disease when left in the garden.

How to Propagate Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

You can grow tomatoes from cuttings or suckers. Use a pair of hand pruners or sharp scissors to remove a 6 to 8 inch sucker or take a 6 to 8 inch cutting from the tip of new growth. Place the cutting in fresh water or soil. Roots will develop in about a week.

How to Grow Cherokee Purple Tomato From Seed

Cherokee Purple grows reliably from seed and, because it's an heirloom, you can save seed from your own fruits to plant the following year. Plant seeds indoors or in a greenhouse 6 to 8 weeks prior to last frost.

  1. Fill a cell tray or 4-inch pots with seed starting mix.
  2. Plant seeds about 1/8 inch deep and cover lightly with mix.
  3. Water lightly or place the pots or cells in a solid bottom tray and add water. Watering from the bottom encourages root growth and also helps avoid damage to tender seedlings which will sprout in one to two weeks.
  4. Once the seedlings have developed true leaves, they can be potted up into a soil based potting mix with fertilizer.

Potting and Repotting Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

Cherokee Purple tomatoes can be grown in pots, but this vining variety won't be as easily managed as bush type tomatoes. For each plant, you will need a pot at least 24 inches in diameter with (ideally several) large drainage holes, a good soil mix with compost or fertilizer and some type of support system that can be anchored to the pot or an adjacent structure. You may need to water your potted tomato daily.

The only time to repot a Cherokee Purple will be if you are moving it from seed starting mix into a new pot with a soil based potting mix. 4-inch pots are usually sufficient to support growth until transplanting into the garden.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Heirloom tomatoes like the Cherokee Purple were not bred for specific disease resistance like many hybrid tomatoes. This makes them vulnerable to every tomato disease and insect infestation. The most damaging pests are aphids, blister beetles, tomato and tobacco hornworms and fall armyworms.

Tiny aphids can often be knocked down with a strong spray from the hose or insecticidal soap. The best way to get rid of the large caterpillars devouring your plants is to handpick. The biological pesticide Bt (Baccilus Thuringiensis) will target the worms before they get big enough to cause real damage. Blister beetle infestations can wipe out a crop in a few days and often require repeated applications of synthetic pesticides.

Tip

All tomatoes are vulnerable to a number of viral and bacterial infections. The best way to avoid problems is to grow a healthy plant in good soil. Tomato diseases overwinter in soil so crop rotation is highly recommended. Avoid planting tomatoes where other nightshade plants—peppers, eggplant, and potatoes—were grown the previous year. Use clean tools, stake your plants to keep the vines and fruit off the ground, water at soil level, and remove fallen leaves and prunings from the garden.

Common Problems with Cherokee Purple Tomato

Tomato plants are also sensitive to variable growing conditions which can result in several common problems.

Blossom End Rot

A black sunken spot develops on the bottom of ripening fruits. This is caused by insufficient calcium uptake and is amplified by inconsistent watering and hot, dry weather. Tomato vines grow quickly and an otherwise healthy plant can usually recover without intervention. It's not uncommon to see blossom end rot on the first early fruits disappear on newer developing fruit. Remove affected fruit so energy isn't spent on ripening a damaged tomato.

Blossom Drop and Poor Fruit Set

This is when flowers form but fall off before developing fruit. The culprit is likely the weather, inconsistent watering, or a combination of both. Cherokee Purples are tolerant of short periods of drought, but they won't produce if allowed to dry out in hot, sunny weather. Fluctuating temperatures result in poor fruit set, so wait until nighttime temperatures stay steadily above 55 degrees to plant your tomatoes in the garden.

Pale Green or Yellowing Leaves,

Tomato leaves should be a deep green color. Pale leaves with prominent veins are likely caused by a lack of nutrients or poor nutrient uptake. Test your soil before planting to learn what might be missing. Like many other plants, bottom leaves will yellow and fall off during the growth cycle. If yellow leaves appear in the tops of your plants, revisit your watering schedule to see if too much or too little water could be the cause.

Sunscald on Fruit

Sunscald manifests as brown, scaly spots on fruit. This is caused by insufficient leaf cover which exposes the fruit to bright, direct sunlight. Leaf loss can occur with a number of tomato diseases or from a nitrogen deficiency, so growing healthy plants is the best remedy.

Tip

Take a soil sample for testing to your cooperative extension service before you plant to find out if you need to add nutrients or adjust the pH level. If problems still arise you may need to consider applying additional synthetic or organic remedies. Always follow label instructions and try to spray late in the day to avoid a negative impact on pollinators.

FAQ
  • How do you know when Cherokee purple tomatoes are ripe?

    Green shoulders are a natural feature of Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Check for ripeness by gently pressing the fruit with your thumb. When it gives slightly and the rest of the fruit is a uniform dusky red color, it's ready to harvest.

  • What are other purple tomato varieties?

    Yes, dark fleshed tomatoes can be found in both slicing and plum types. Most similar to Cherokee Purple are 'Black from Tula', 'Black Krim', and 'Brandywine Black'. Plum tomatoes include 'Purple Russian' and 'Black Plum'.

  • When do you transplant Cherokee Purple plants grown from seed to the outside?

    Wait until your plants are 6 to 8 inches tall and be sure to harden them off before transplanting. Cherokee Purple will tolerate short periods of overnight temperatures in the low '50's, but don't expect them to do much until temperatures remain at 65 degrees or above.

Article Sources
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  2. Growing Home Garden Tomatoes. University of Missouri Extension Office.

  3. https://www.compostthis.co.uk/tomato-plants

  4. Tomato Insects and Pests. Clemson University Extension Office.