By Chris Smith
Sometimes tomatoes and heirlooms seem to be one and the same. Certainly the heirloom tomato captures the gardener’s heart in a way that heirloom carrots or lettuce do not. This could perhaps be chemistry over consciousness, as tomato seeds are rumored to be aphrodisiac. However, in Colonial America, our much-loved tomato was considered poisonous and grown only as an ornamental. The edible tomato, Solanum lycopersicum esculentum, did not gain popularity and acceptance (in the USA) until a good way through the 19th century. That’s a pretty short period of time to generate a huge amount of heirlooms. The website Heirloom Tomato Plants claims there are more than 15,000 named tomato varieties, with 2,000 in active cultivation.
One of those thousands is the Cherokee Purple—a tomato that has rocketed to popularity in recent years. In 1990, this tomato was pretty much unknown. John D. Green of Sevierville, TN, sent a small packet of seeds to Craig LeHoullier (who has since authored Growing Epic Tomatoes and lives in Raleigh, NC). LeHoullier grew the unnamed seeds, knowing only that they had been shared with Green’s neighbor by the Cherokee Indians more than 100 years before. LeHoullier loved the taste and purple complexity of the tomato and named it Cherokee Purple. “Not a real genius approach to the name,” admits LeHoullier, who decided this tomato deserved to be shared and sent seeds to Jeff McCormack of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Despite McCormack’s misgivings over the tomato’s ‘color of a leg bruise,’ he decided to list it in their seed catalog because the taste was excellent. Since then, the Cherokee Purple has enjoyed widespread fame amongst heirloom tomatoes, and has been archived in the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
That is just one reason why, with so many choices, Slow Food Asheville picked the Cherokee Purple to spotlight for its 2017 Heritage Food Project. “Every year we pick a single variety to celebrate,” says Slow Food Asheville’s Ashley Epling. “We offer free plants or seeds, and educate people to grow, eat and save that variety. This year we chose the Cherokee Purple as a bridge to connect a popular heirloom with first-time or beginner gardeners.”
Banner Greenhouses in Nebo, NC donated thousands of Cherokee Purple seedlings to the Heritage Food Project. The plants were distributed to gardeners, community gardens and school gardens in the greater Asheville area. Slow Food Asheville is organizing harvest and seed-saving events centered around the Cherokee Purple. Keep up with the project at slowfoodasheville.org.
LeHoullier visited Asheville in March 2017 to teach at the Organic Growers School Spring Conference. As a seed saver, he had this to say, “When I think of the shocking popularity and widespread availability of Cherokee Purple, it brings to mind the fragility of the road that led from then to now. Any break in the chain—the various decisions to share, grow, sell that led from the 1800s until now—would deprive us of a tomato that seems to be pretty well liked.”
Some would say, loved.