Q: This spring I planted seeds I saved from a single ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato I had eaten. One of the seeds produced a plant and fruit that was completely different from the rest of the plants. This particular plant had huge leaves while the other plants had the standard small slightly frilled leaves.
The fruit was very shallow top to bottom and sort of oval-shaped. It turned a brilliant pigeon blood ruby color instead of the purple with green shoulders I expected. These tomatoes had a slightly sweeter flavor than the ‘Cherokee Purple’. Perhaps it’s my imagination or a neighbor playing a joke but I wanted to see if you were familiar with this phenomenon.
A: I recently came across a photograph of my family back in 1969. We all came from two blue-eyed, brown-haired parents … so why is one sister a green-eyed blond and the other a blue-eyed brunette? The answer is GENETICS!
‘Cherokee Purple’ is an heirloom tomato that, like most, usually comes true from its seed. Tomatoes have perfect flowers; wind and slight vibrations are all that are typically necessary to accomplish pollination. Occasionally, though, an insect visits a different tomato plant variety growing nearby and brings that different pollen along on its visits to your tomato flowers. The result? A hybrid tomato, having characteristics of both plant parent’s fruit color and leaf shape.
Since mammals do not “pollinate” themselves (except in the laboratory now), their offspring exhibit characteristics of both parents, like my siblings. Some plants DO pollinate themselves exclusively, leading to vegetables and fruits that are identical to those planted hundreds of years ago. It sounds like the offspring of the ‘Cherokee Purple’ was pretty nice anyway – even though it wasn’t what you expected!
If you are interested in trying more heirloom tomatoes, Totally Tomatoes (www.totallytomato.com) lists hundreds.
The South Carolina Foundation Seed Association offers dozens of heirloom vegetables.