Candy canes have been linked with holiday festivities for more than 100 years. The red and white-striped shepherd's staffs brighten up the Christmas tree, flavor seasonal lattes, and are found in children's stockings on Christmas morning.

Many people enjoy the cool and refreshing peppermint flavor without knowing there are ingenious farmers and agricultural researchers working year-round to produce the naturally spicy bite of this holiday icon. Candy canes get their distinctive taste from the oil secreted under the leaves of Mentha × piperita, the bright green herbaceous perennial herb known as peppermint.

Peppermint, a cross between spearmint and wintermint, is America's most popular mint flavor. Peppermint oil is an important ingredient not just in candy; it is used in toothpaste, mouthwash, gum, pharmaceuticals and beauty products.

The majority of U.S. peppermint is cultivated in the Pacific Northwest, where summer days are warm and long and nights are cool, minimizing the presence of a chemical that imparts a bitter taste in the mint oil. In far northern California – near the University of California's Intermountain Research and Extension Center in Siskiyou County, plus in Lassen County and in the Fall River Valley of Shasta County – the soil and climate are equally hospitable to mint production.

UC researchers have experimented with mint for more than 50 years, said Rob Wilson, UC Cooperative Extension advisor and director of the Intermountain REC. But it wasn't until the mid-1990s that interest in commercially producing California peppermint took off. The 2010 peppermint acreage in northeast California was more than 3,500 acres and valued at about $7 million.

"Farmers are excited to have a new cropping choice like mint,” Wilson said, "especially given the fact that we have fewer choices than most areas of California because of our short growing season. Mint has given our farmers a new crop to add to their rotations.”

California peppermint oil producers have stiff competition. A significant quantity of peppermint oil is now produced in China and India. But U.S. growers see the opportunity to set their product apart by applying their agricultural skill to producing exceptionally high quality oil. To do so, the growers rely on research to inform their decisions on irrigation, fertilization and pest control. Extensive work on ideal mint management has been conducted in the Pacific Northwest, but there is a need for additional research to study mint production and economic viability under California conditions.