The prevalence and imperative of translocations for the conservation of plant species is increasing in response to habitat loss and degradation, plant diseases, and projected climate change. However, the intentional movement and nurture of plant species to increase their range and/or abundance has been practiced for millennia, encompassing species with food, medicinal, narcotic, and ceremonial values. While it is well documented that Australian Aboriginal people altered the composition and structure of vegetation communities through regular burning and engaged in complex food processing and storage, the extent to which they intentionally dispersed and propagated plants remains unclear. Here, I review the ethnographic, archaeological, biogeographic, and phylogenetic record relating to plant translocations in Aboriginal Australia. With the exception of re-planting of tubers after harvesting, the ethnographic record is characterized by sparse but detailed accounts of movement, planting, and/or nurture of important species, often involving ceremonial elements. Translocations encompassed assisted migrations, introductions and reinforcements, and spanned much of the continent and numerous life-forms and plant uses. The ethnographic record is fragmentary and often difficult to verify, and we will never know the full extent and nature of plant translocations in Aboriginal Australia. However, combined with biogeographic and, increasingly, phylogenetic insights, there is sufficient evidence to place modern translocations in a much older context of human-plant interactions. This allows for broader and more nuanced discussion around the practice and ethics of translocations, particularly in the context of assisted migrations in response to climate change, as well as re-evaluation of “natural” plant distributions in Australia.
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Vol. 38 • No. 3