Sea cliffs represent 80% of the world's coasts and can be found virtually in all types of morphogenetic environments. Most studies on rocky environments focused on the impacts of modern sea level rise on cliff stability derived from sequential surveys, direct measurements or erosional features in anthropogenic structures. In this study, we explore the potential of dendrogeomorphic techniques to quantify multidecadal changes in coastal environments on Porquerolles Island (France). We sampled a total of 56 cross-sections from 16 Pinus halepensis Mill. roots growing on former alluvial deposits and on sandy-gravelly cliffs to quantify mean annual cliff retreat rates as well as changes in cliff geometry. Anatomical changes in roots have been used successfully in the past to quantify continuous denudation rates on slopes, channel incision and gullying processes but the approach has not been used so far in a coastal cliff context. At Porquerolles Island, reconstructed rates of cliff retreat cover 30–40 years and show average erosion rates between 0.6 and 3.9 cm yr−1 (average: 2.1 cm yr−1). Highest rates are observed at Pointe de la Tufière (2.6–3.9 cm yr−1), a small rock promontory that is more exposed to wave and storm surges than the remainder of the study area. By contrast, lower erosion rates are recorded at cliffs protected by the La Courtade pocket beach (0.6–1.9 cm yr−1). This contribution demonstrates that dendrogeomorphic analyses of roots clearly have a significant potential and that they are a powerful tool for the quantification of multidecadal rates of cliff retreat in areas where measurements of past erosion are lacking. More specifically, the approach also has clear advantages over the shorter time series obtained with repeat monitoring (e.g. terrestrial laser scanning, sensors, erosion pins) or over longer, but more coarsely resolved records obtained from aerial photographs or radio-nuclides. © 2018 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.