THE 1980S may become the decade in which Americans finally lose faith in mowed grass and turn to the graceful wildflower meadow. The first signs of the shift can be witnessed in the most public of spaces: along roadsides and median strips. In sections of the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia, the Palisades Interstate Highway of New York and New Jersey, and on as much as 1 million acres along Texas roads, a mix of wildflowers has broken up the monolithic mat of grass: hedges of black-eyed Susans, with their yellow pinwheels glowing in the dark, scattered stalks of Queen Anne's lace, robust purple cornflowers, fragile oxeye daiseys, grayish-white yarrow, dreamy lavender-blue buttons of chicory, orange poppies of California and spires of lupine.

The transition from grasses to flowers promises to be beautifying, but not peaceful.

On one side of the barricades are people who cheerfully accept petrochemical dosings and high water bills as a small price to pay for a fine lawn. They argue that unmowed, unruly roadside vegetation attracts hordes of insects that end up smashed on windshields, not to mention that wildflowers attract bees, and bees kill more Americans every year than snakes do. They charge that if one neighbor decides on a wildflower lawn, stray seeds will drift through the neighborhood and ruin everyone else's lawn.

In the other camp are conservationists who call for a return to a simpler life. For them, wildflowers are living icons of self- reliance and pristine beauty. They dismiss the notion of a perfect lawn as a good American dream. They say that in Texas, the vanguard state of wildflower use, when grass is replaced by wildflowers water consumption is cut by up to 70 percent. Wildflower plantings by Texas highways have saved the state 23 percent on maintenance costs.

Nevertheless, lawns stir memories beyond the soft turf of a childhood stroll, an , or a brisk soccer match on a perfect English greensward. There is an atavistic preference for the openness and abundance of savannahs and steppes, which are parts of nature already half-civilized when compared with forests and deserts. Of the 83 million households in America, 53 million have lawns: 6.5 million acres, 10 times the area of Rhode Island.

On the other hand, wildflowers evoke the untamed wilderness before tractors, pesticide sprays and plows. They are what flowers were before hybridizers.

To lawn lovers, wildflowers are weeds. To wildflower lobbyists, genetic diversity strengthens an ecosystem whacked out of balance by plantings of non-native varieties. James Duke, a scientist in the Beltsville research headquarters of the Department of Agriculture, says botanists tend to endorse the case for wildflowers. "A lawn represents a very narrow diversity of sp" Duke says. "A mixed wildflower meadow is more desirable because genetic diversity is strength."

Furthermore, lawns are expensive. The Lawn Institute, the research arm of the turf industry, reports that caring for home lawns by do-it-yourselfers costs up to $4.25 billion a year. Those who hire lawn services spend another $2.3 billion.

THE COALITION to expand America's wildflower frontier has as its most prominent activist Lady Bird Johnson, widow of the 36th president, who has donated up to $300,000 to the cause. On her 70th birthday nearly three years ago, she made a gift of 60 acres of land to establish the National Wildflower Research Center in Texas.

"In all walks of life, I've taken my hat off to survivors," she wrote in a recent issue of

Wildflower, the newsletter of the Research Center. "As I drive down the highway, to my great joy, wildflowers are there -- colorful banners of daisies, primroses and many others."

Bess Abell, Johnson's former White House social secretary, says the former first lady spends "the lion's share of her time" working for the wildflower center, which is her "number one passion." She has raised more than $1 million, built a national membership of 3,000 and hosted large fund-raising parties. Today she will preside over the first benefit in the Washington area, hosted by former ambassador Averell Harriman and Pamela Harriman at their farm, Willow Oaks, outside Middleburg, Va. Cosponsoring the benefit are actress Helen Hayes, Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole.

"I DON'T undrstand this bizarre lawn worship," says Stephen Kenney, 31, a PhD candidate in English at the State University of New York in Buffalo. In the spring of 1984, Kenney bought $35 worth of wildflower seeds from a mail-order firm in Vermont. The flowers sprouted and bloomed, replacing a scraggly front lawn. But Kenney received a violation notice and an order to cut down the flowers. He protested, but was arrested and convicted for failing to keep his front yard "free of hazards." The judge fined Kenney $50 for every day that his wildflower yard remained unmowed. Though his attorney obtained a stay of the fine until an appeal is decided, debates at civic association meetings have focused on how the community might spend the thousands of dollars Kenney may eventually have to pay.

One night last July, while Kenney and his wife Emelie were out, their black-eyed Susans and bachelor buttons, goldenrods and purple coneflowers were mowed down. An ngry Kenney turned to the police, and two of his neighbors are now facing charges of trespassing and criminal mischief.

"The lawn is a symbol," sighs Kenney, who is writing his PhD dissertation on Henry David Thoreau. "But I never thought my wildflowers would lead me to court. My case has made people aware of some of the problems of lawn maintenance: chemical pollution and the enormous waste of energy. It has made me aware of the anger behind Thoreau's writing, especially on civil disobedience and when he was jailed for not paying taxes to a state supporting slavery. Now Thoreau's ideas strike me on a gut level, not just as good pieces of intellectual work."

Kenney's case is not unique. Similar confrontations have taken place across the country, and thousands of neighborhoods have covenants requiring a front lawn kept at a height of no more than three inches.

There could be compromises, says Mary Pockman of McLean, who heads the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Wildflower Preservation Society. "For the homeowner, it may not be possible, at least initially, to shift to a wildflower meadow," she says. "But a compromise of a small meadow will accustom people's eyes to wildflower plantings." She suggests flowers that look like cultivated plants, such as black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers, rather than Queen Anne's lace and chicory, which strike some as weedy. "If you are growing a meadow in a suburb where it's not the expectation, say it is intentional," she says. "For instance: mow a path through the wildflower meadow, or plant a wildflower border next to the fence. Make it more acceptable."

"It's a matter of educating people," says Ray Rogers, a botanist with the American Horticultural Society. "The question is whether the public wants to pay for mowing the grass once a week or mowing a wildflower meadow once a year."

Low maintenance has been the objective of two wildflower test plots maintained at River Farm in Alexandria, headquarters of the American Horticultural Society. Now in its fourth year, the experiment suggests that once- ever, it appears that every third or fourth year the entire vegetation must be killed with a general herbicide, Rogers says, to get rid of weeds, perennial grasses and hardwood saplings that threaten to crowd out the wildflowers.

"The point is that you can't just plant wildflowers and forget it," says Rogers. "If we'd let go, the area would return to the forest it once was. In fact, we are fighting nature in trying to maintain that wildflower meadow."

Gardeners need not be disturbed by the paradox. Fine gardens have always been the result of nature's being modified, if not defied, and a better design often emerges when nature's way is challenged by the gardener's will.

"Our goal is to re-establish native species where they naturally occur," says David Northington, the botanist who heads the Natial Wildflower Research Center in Texas. "We don't recommend introducing species outside their natural range."

An example of an import that has spread fears of sci-fi dimensions is the kudzu, a Japanese vine bought to the United States to stabilize loose soils and to prevent erosion. The kudzu has spread with amazing speed, invading nearly all the South.

"The exotic is not always desirable," Northington says. "We should try to expand the habitats of those plants that are either native or have successfully naturalized." By native he means those that were here before the white man came; naturalized plants are those imports that have done well but are not invasive. Northington is pleased that there isn't a single wildflower common throughout the entire United States. "Texas ought to look like Texas," he says, "and Vermont should remain Vermont. It would be dull if one plant dominated the entire countryside."