As the Cherokee Purple plants bear fruit, the question returns: is the tomato fruit or veg?


The first Cherokee Purple Heritage tomato in my garden

Today, I saw the first of what I hope will be an avalanche of Cherokee Purple heritage tomatoes in the garden. It’s only little, but instead of seeing a baby unripe pale green tomato, I saw delicious promise.

Until now, the tomato plants have been full of flowers but nary a budding fruit. That’s changing (see photo).

A yellow flower starts to turn into a Cherokee Purple tomato

The most exciting phase of the tomato-growing project – harvesting and eating the sun-warmed fruit straight off the stem – is almost upon us.

It’s been quite a journey. I’ve grown these Cherokee Purples from seed, which came to me straight from Thomas Jefferson’s garden shop at Monticello in Charlotesville. (As an aside, the gardens were breathtaking when I visited Monticello some years ago).

Sight of the tiny green tomato made me consider, once again, that age-old question. Does a tomato plant belong in the vegetable patch? In other words, is it fruit or vegetable?

Never mind the fact that our garden is so small we don’t really have a separate vegetable patch and everything is grown pell-mell with everything else, fruit, flowers, shrubs, architectural plants. But is a tomato fruit or veg?

‘Good Housekeeping’ once offered an interesting take on the tomato’s legal position. Apparently, the US Supreme Court ruled nearly 130 years ago that tomatoes count as vegetables. But botanists say they’re fruit.

GH noted the reason for the legal definition of the tomato as a vegetable: “…back in 1883, a tariff was put in place to protect domestic vegetable growers by taxing imported vegetables.” More specifically, it was West Indian tomato imports that attracted duties and the collector of the NY port was sued. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which decided, GH wrote, “that while tomatoes fit the botanical definition of fruit, consumers think of tomatoes as vegetables and that is how they should be legally defined.”

None of this matters when it comes to the bounty I’m hoping for in my garden. The Cherokee Purples will be sweet as fruit and all the more savoury for the wait.