Monthly nature walks at Fairhaven Memorial Park & Mortuary honor the living

Observers examine Hollywood juniper trees at Fairhaven Memorial Park.
Observers examine a collection of Hollywood juniper trees at Fairhaven Memorial Park. The species of tree is popular for cemeteries.
(Sarah Mosqueda)
Share via

An Orange County cemetery might not seem like a place to discover new life, but Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana is full of lively wild plants, birds and animals.

“It’s a special place to observe wildlife in the middle of suburban Orange County,” said Fairhaven employee Emily Alvarez.

The established arboretum and cemetery at 1702 Fairhaven Ave. is among the county’s oldest cemeteries.


“When we were founded in 1911 by Oliver Halsell; he wanted to create a memorial park,” said Alvarez, “and memorial parks were real new back then. It was actually an idea that was put together by Walt Disney and then the founder of Forest Lawn.”

A memorial park is essentially a modern cemetery. Usually that means utilizing flat markers rather than the tall headstones of traditional graveyards and maintaining a green, park-style atmosphere.

The group of nature observers note interesting plants and grave markers in Fairhaven Memorial Park.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

“They wanted to create an environment where if you looked out, you weren’t reminded that your loved one was gone,” said Alvarez. “You weren’t seeing these upright tombstones, you were seeing flat markers so when you looked out, it just looked like a lawn or a garden.”

Halsell expanded on that idea by building an arboretum, since he loved trees, said Alvarez.

“He brought in trees from all over the world because even at that time Orange County had so many different cultures coming in. He brought trees that were from the different parts of the world that these people were coming from,” said Alvarez.

Today, Fairhaven is home to over 70 different species of trees along with hundreds of species of birds — so many that on the second Saturday of every month, Alvarez and naturalist Joel Robinson of Naturalist-for-You lead a nature walk through the Santa Ana cemetery.

On a recent Saturday a group of close to 20 nature lovers with binoculars in hand embarked on a leisurely two-hour walk.

Naturalist Joel Robinson and Fairhaven Memorial Park employee Emily Alvarez.
Naturalist Joel Robinson and Fairhaven Memorial Park employee Emily Alvarez lead the monthly two-hour nature walk, offered every second Saturday of the month at Fairhaven Memorial Park.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

“We don’t have any destination in mind, other than just being here and appreciating this place and being mindful and present,” Robinson said to the group. “We will rely on you to help us figure out where to go.”

Based in Orange, Naturalist-for-You leads guided nature walks throughout Southern California and beyond and partners with Fairhaven for the monthly walk.

Robinson is knowledgeable and shares information in a way that builds a connection between nature lovers and the wildlife, asking the group to describe a plant’s characteristics or what memories it evokes.

“Obviously, we can give you a name for this tree right away,” Robinson said while passing around the fragrant yellow buds off a tree near Fairhaven’s main office. “But are you going to retain that information? It might go in one ear and out the other.”

The group learns that the buds that smell of jasmine and look like plumeria are from a native frangipani, a tree from Australia, which shares a name with Frangipane, a French creamy almond custard.

Naturalist Joel Robinson describes a tree blooming with flowers.
Naturalist Joel Robinson describes a tree blooming with flowers to observers at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

Alvarez shares information about wildlife as well as points of interest throughout the cemetery, pointing out the markers of interesting people buried at Fairhaven, like Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom.

“Emily has more of the culture history than I do about this place because she works here and is also really passionate about this place,” said Robinson. “I consider her the resident naturalist here.”

Trees that can be found at Fairhaven include Guatemalan holly, evergreen pear, Hollywood juniper, Brazilian pepper tree, Japanese black pine, Oriental aborvitae, Chinese elm and deodar cedar. When a tree dies, the cemetary makes an effort to replace it with the same species.

“We always plant the same type of tree back,” said Alvarez. “That way it is staying consistent.”

Fairhaven works with a company called Peterson’s Tree Works in Orange to help maintain the trees.

“We have to wait about a year, but they will let us know based on how old the tree is and how deep the root system goes down and how long it will take for the root system to die off so we can redevelop that area and plant a new tree,” Alvarez said.

Besides adding beauty to the grounds, the diverse plant life is responsible for attracting animals, like fox squirrels and opossums and a variety of birds.

“Because of the vast array of trees and all the different heights, we get the different of birds, which is really nice,” said Alvarez.

Western bluebirds are particularly prevalent, thanks in large part to the Southern California Bluebird Club, an extension of a national conservation effort with volunteers who monitor 16 western bluebird boxes distributed throughout Fairhaven.

A Western Bluebird box in a tree at Fairhaven Memorial Park.
Fairhaven Memorial Park works with the Southern California Bluebird Club to monitor Western Bluebird boxes that are distributed throughout the park.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

On Saturday’s walk, the group spots an American robin displaying a bright red chest, house sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and yellow-rumped warblers, which Alvarez lovingly refers to as “butter butts.”

“I prefer that term,” she laughs.

The park will also get raptors or predatory birds at night.

“We get owls — you can usually hear them around dusk,” said Alvarez. “We get the great horned owl and we get a lot of hawks.”

Bluebirds are not the only ones that hatch at Fairhaven.

“The big raptors will build their nest in the ash trees because those are really tall,” Alvarez said.

Fairhaven Memorial Park is home to many Hollywood juniper trees.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

The nature walks are offered every second Saturday of the month from 8 to 10 a.m., and interested nature lovers can join by contacting Alvarez at

Alvarez said the Fairhaven team works to continue what Halsell started and ensure the grounds are not only a special place to pay respects to the deceased but also a place to celebrate the living.

“Halsell wanted to create this environment here that was for the person left behind. So you had a beautiful place to bury your loved one and honor them, yes of course,” said Alvarez. “But it is a place that could emotionally help the person that is visiting deal with the death.”